Is ruling end of file-sharing?

Industry hopes so, but users say free music will never die

June 29, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl, Abigail Tucker and Sam Sessa | Stephen Kiehl, Abigail Tucker and Sam Sessa,SUN STAFF

Click, click, click. Suddenly a chaos of Korean characters fills Jae Yoon's laptop screen.

This is Soribada.com, the 22-year-old's secret weapon, from which he's downloaded free music from artists such as Usher, the Beatles and B.B. King. Yoon came to rely on the foreign file-sharing site while a student at the Johns Hopkins University, which tries to stop students from downloading free music by restricting Web pages such as Grokster and Kazaa.

Not Soribada, though.

"They have no clue what it is," the recent graduate said with a grin. "They just don't catch on."

As quickly as authorities find ways to curtail the free downloading of music, consumers find ways around them.

But the freewheeling culture of downloading that has blossomed in recent years now faces its most significant obstacle - Monday's Supreme Court ruling that will allow entertainment companies to sue Internet firms that distribute the software required to download free music.

Since 1999, when Napster debuted and allowed Internet users to swap songs for free, millions of people have gone online to download music. They have become accustomed to getting what they want - and not paying a dime for it.

Napster was shut down, but copycats soon emerged. The record industry has brought lawsuits against 12,000 consumers, but thousands more download every day. It's free, it's easy and consumers think the music industry owes them something after years of $17 CDs and $50 concert tickets.

"I feel like I've been giving enough of my money," said Aaron Benoit, 23, a graphic designer who lives in Crofton and has downloaded 2,000 songs. "They can stand to lose a few."

The entertainment industry is lauding the Supreme Court ruling, saying it could shut down some of the most popular downloading sites.

"We knew this couldn't go on forever," said Wayne Rosso, head of Mashboxx, a soon-to-be-launched pay music service. "It just didn't make sense and it wasn't right. ... It's doomed."

Rosso expects the Recording Industry Association of America to go after free downloading sites such as Kazaa, eDonkey, BearShare and LimeWire, taking them to court.

The president of New York-based eDonkey acknowledged that firms such as his - U.S. companies that pay taxes and maintain offices - could be on their way out. But he said shadow companies such as eMule always spring up.

"I've been trying for the last three years to find out who they are. You can't find them," said eDonkey chief Sam Yagan. "It may well be the case that eDonkey and LimeWire and BearShare end up getting dragged into this and that we're eliminated. But if anyone in the Supreme Court or the recording industry thinks that's the end of file-sharing, no. It's the end of people like me who talk to the press and who will show up in a courtroom. But the eMules of the world don't give a hoot what the Supreme Court says."

For many consumers, downloading is the preferred mode of acquiring movies, video games and music. But music has been at the forefront of the battle between consumers and the industry because the small size of song files makes downloading fast and easy.

There are plenty of legal ways to download music. The leading online store is Apple's iTunes, which sells songs for 99 cents each. Napster was reborn as a pay service, and Yahoo soon will launch a music store.

But free downloads far outpace paid ones. In March, 243 million songs were downloaded from illicit file-sharing sites, according to NDP MusicWatch, compared with 26 million songs that were purchased online.

Fans say that if a band only has one hot tune, they'd rather download the single for free than buy an album that might be stuffed with filler. "If you find a lot of songs by one group, than you want to buy the CD, but if you have one song that you really like, it's not worth it to buy a $22 CD," said Daniella Berman, 19, a student at Yale University. "Is it convenient? Sure. Does it [stink] for the record companies? Yeah. But are my loyalties with the record companies? ... Not particularly."

The industry says downloading cuts record sales. CD sales fell 18 percent from 2000 to 2004 - a drop of 175 million units. But the music fan's conscience is apparently not tortured.

"Always, if you have the option of getting it for free, students will," said Suruchi Dewoolkar, a 19-year-old Hopkins neuroscience major who downloads Jay-Z and G-Unit from Kazaa.com.

Many computer users aren't sure precisely which file-sharing practices are illegal and are reluctant to discuss them. But even the budding attorneys among them aren't deterred.

"It's just not that big a deal," said Nicole Cary, 27, of Baltimore, who is studying for the bar exam. She says plenty of her law school classmates download stolen music. "It's like, what are the chances I'm going to get sued?"

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