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What the MP3 lawsuit means for music fans

Ty Burr looks into the dicey future of free downloads on the Net

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What the MP3 lawsuit means for music fans

A website called MP3.com just lost a big lawsuit. Why should you care?

Because it may spell the end of music’s free ride on the Internet.

Here’s the deal: MP3.com doesn’t OWN the MP3 format (which is merely a method of scrunching music files down to a size where they can easily be e-mailed or downloaded while retaining decent sound quality). All that company CEO Michael Robertson owns is the Web address MP3.com, which he was smart enough to buy just before the online-music wave went big time. Since then, he has made it his business to promote music by unknown and unsigned artists while building a community around his site and becoming the central node for the vaguely libertarian, sorta anarchistic ”music wants to be free” crowd.

The big record labels eyed him warily, but there was nothing they could do, because he wasn’t doing anything illegal. But then Robertson launched his my.mp3.com service. And the dogs of war got slipped.

My.mp3.com is an online music storage system, similar to what other sites are doing. The basic concept is that instead of clogging up your computer’s hard drive with hefty MP3 files, you store them on MP3.com’s servers — and that way, you can listen to them from any computer with a Net connection.

But where all the other file-storage sites make you laboriously upload your music to their server farms (which takes 15 minutes a song, on average), my.mp3.com came up with a killer idea. Once you slipped a CD into your computer’s disc drive, the site would merely note that you had a copy, presumably paid for, and drop MP3 files they already had on their servers into your storage file.

To do that, the folks at MP3.com had to go out, buy 45,000 CDs, and digitize them into the MP3 format. And that’s when the record labels went ballistic. On behalf of the major labels (including those owned by EW.com’s parent company Time Warner), the RIAA filed suit against MP3.com, claiming that the service was essentially giving away their wares without paying any licensing fees. And promoting piracy to boot.

A federal judge agreed. MP3.com’s Robertson is hoping for a settlement that won’t bankrupt his company, and it’s possible that he may get one — the record labels have no desire to put him out of business, really. They just want their bucks (some of which may even go to the artists), and, ideally, they’d like control.

What does this mean to you, Joe and Joanne MP3-head? Well, as the first verdict in a slew of lawsuits filed against Net-music upstarts, the MP3.com decision doesn’t bode well for the sorta anarchists. In particular, the battle over Napster — the software community that makes trading MP3s mind-blowingly easy — may well tilt toward the corporate powers that be, especially when artists like Metallica and Dr. Dre have gone on record as saying the service promotes piracy and costs them money (no matter that CD sales jumped 10 percent last year).

In other words, I wouldn’t be surprised if Napster is out of business by the end of the year. Which doesn’t mean that free MP3 trading is going to disappear — it’ll just go underground. And in a few years, when downloading an album will be relatively commonplace, the majority of folks will do it legally. And they’ll pay for the privilege. This makes market sense, at least: What MP3.com and Napster are trying to do is build businesses using other people’s creations. Whether you think that’s right or wrong, you have to admit it takes a hell of a lot of nerve.