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. . . And a Pirate in a Pear Tree

By David Ignatius

Wednesday, December 15, 1999; Page A47

Sure, you could go shopping for CDs for your loved ones this Christmas. But thanks to the magic of the Internet, it's also possible to steal music. And while you may be oblivious to these opportunities for larceny, it's a good bet your computer-savvy kids aren't.

The new music technology is known as "MP3." It's a way of compressing audio files so that they can be downloaded quickly from the big computers that run the Internet, known as "servers," to the hard drive of your personal computer. From your PC, they can then be transferred to portable MP3 players or onto blank CDs. The technology allows you, in effect, to customize your own personal CD collection.

Now, this technology certainly wasn't intended to foster music piracy. Quite the opposite--it was seen as a way for unknown artists to sell their music directly to consumers--without going through a recording studio. And the best-known Web site, "MP3.com," does just that. It features thousands of wannabe musicians playing their renditions of everything from Bach fugues to Delta blues guitar.

But thanks to the creativity and mischievousness of the Internet culture, hackers quickly found ways to exchange copyrighted music online--to steal tunes by famous artists, in other words. A music-piracy underground evolved, centered around a few web sites and Internet newsgroups where audiophiles knew they could go to get the good stuff.

Enter the piracy police. This month, the Recording Industry Association of America sued a notorious Web site called "napster.com," alleging that it "is operating as a haven for music piracy on the Internet." The trade group claimed, "Pirated copies of the recordings of every artist on the Billboard charts can be located and downloaded from Napster."

Napster's response is that it's simply a bulletin board. Its users can make their own MP3 collections available to others--and if those happen to include the latest recordings from superstar rock group Limp Bizkit, or classical piano recordings by Glenn Gould, well, that's not Napster's problem. (Official Napster logo: "They can take our lives, but they'll never take our freedom!")

Hackers mention other "middleman" sites, such as "scour.net," that offer similar links to a pirate's treasure of downloadable music. Again, these sites can claim they're not violating anyone's copyright. But they're certainly making it possible for others to do so.

By allowing users to create their own CDs, MP3 offers some tantalizing opportunities. Now you can forget about all the lame songs on Led Zeppelin I and just grab "Whole Lotta Love." Or you can dump the mind-numbing recitatives in Handel's "Messiah" and just listen to the arias.

Or you can mix and match. Consider, for example, a personal CD that intercut Sir George Solti's recording of Wagner's Ring cycle (dubbed by one critic "the greatest recording ever made") with selections from "The 2000 Year Old Man," the comedy album by Carl Reiner and Mel Brooks. Now that would be worth listening to.

The grandees of the music industry, after initially hoping that Internet audio would just go away so they could keep selling CDs, are now scrambling to transform the MP3 hacker's paradise into a profitable marketplace. They're developing more advanced technologies, such as "Genuine MP3" and "LiquidAudio," which include new security features such as digital "watermarks" that allow bootlegged recordings to be traced, and expiration dates that automatically wipe out selections if a user hasn't paid to listen to them.

The MP3 war illustrates a broader dynamic that's driving the Internet culture. Hackers and technology are in a constant race with each other. As soon as some fancy software company invents a new way to transfer information, hackers figure out ways to crack it and steal the goods--pushing the technologists to develop better versions, the hackers to subvert that new release, and so on.

It's that anarchic strain in our culture that, in many ways, is the hidden core of the technology explosion of the '90s--nerdy kids sitting in their basements figuring out ways to exchange pirated music, or pornography, or fancy software programs. They're the grubby footsoldiers of the Internet revolution.

For a glimpse at the hackers' world, you can visit "slashdot.org." (Motto: "News for Nerds. Stuff that matters.") They recently compiled a reader survey of "Top 10 Hacks of All Time" which included some intriguing selections: The Trojan Horse; the SR-71 "Blackbird" spyplane; the Apple II computer; an ingenious backdoor built by the co-author of an operating system called UNIX that essentially allowed him to hack into any computer application he liked.

The hackers' top-ten list goes on with some other gems of elegant larceny. But before you get too indignant, consider that the net worth of slashdot.org's readership is probably higher than that of the Wall Street Journal.

And for good reason: These crazy, music-pirating, authority-hating lunatics are the people who are actually building the infrastructure of the new economy. Let's sing a chorus from a bootlegged version of the "The Chipmunks Christmas Album," in their honor.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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