Say goodbye to the no cost download free for all, says Ed Tahaney

By Ed Tahaney
Updated March 22, 2001 at 05:00 AM EST
Britney Spears
Credit: Britney Spears: Joerg Sarbach/AP/Wide World

Confessions of a Napster Outlaw

Napster’s been the greatest party since Woodstock, except this jam session has lasted for almost two years. More than 60 million people have downloaded the file sharing software since it was launched in 1999. In the year that I’ve spent searching for rarities and imports, I’ve downloaded some real guilty pleasures. Have you ever heard Johnny Cash’s 1965 recording of ”Wer Kennt Den Weg”? (That’s ”I Walk the Line” in German.) How about a 1983 rockabilly outtake of Bruce Springsteen’s ”My Hometown?” It’s great! Try looking for this stuff in your local mall and you’ll understand the genius ?- and the appeal ?- behind Napster.

I confess that I’m not always so high minded about my downloads. I have a funny MP3 of Britney Spears cursing like a sailor backstage at the Rock in Rio concert last month. (That one alone is almost worth getting sued over.)

But just in case someone at the record labels is reading this, I want to let everyone know that I’m no digital pirate. I don’t burn or rip CDs that I do not own. Yes, I may have downloaded Run DMC’s new single ”Take the Money and Run,” but I own all of their albums (on tape and CD). How old school, right? And I’ll be in line to buy ”Crown Royal” when it goes on sale March 27.

Still, that doesn’t ease the pain of knowing the end is near for my favorite piece of software. This month, a federal court injunction forced Napster to filter out some 135,000 song titles that infringe on major label copyrights. Call it the day the free music died. The service will never be the same.

Last weekend I received a ”Denied Access” message when I tried to log on to the server. ”Your Napster account has been blocked pursuant to a Notification of Alleged Infringement under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (‘DMCA’) filed against you by Barbara Orbison Music Company, through its agent,” read the cold hearted message. I felt like a nobody trapped behind the velvet rope outside of a hot new nightclub.

The song that kicked me off the system: Roy Orbison & k.d. lang’s duet of ”Cryin”’ (Hey! I paid, sort of — I own the video.) I deleted ”Cryin”’ from my hard drive but found I still couldn’t log on to the service unless I filled out a counternotification, which states that I was blocked by mistake, and that I consent to being sued in the federal court. Only then would my account be restored — in 10 to 14 days. As if!

Sure, I could access all my MP3s, but I couldn’t trade them or share with the ”community.” I was banished from the tribe. Today you won’t find any songs by Bob Dylan or Metallica when you search Napster, but there is still plenty of no doubt intentionally mislabeled stuff by ”Dillon,” ”Metalica,” and even somebody called ”Orbitson.”

Yet there’s hope for those willing to rage against the machine. Using a software patch that’s making its way through cyberspace, you can delete your old account, install Napster version 2.0 beta 9.6, and create a new account using a different user name. It’ll take you less time (about five minutes) than, say, downloading Pink Floyd’s ”Dark Side of the Moon” (using a cable modem or better). The new version is the same as the old except it loads new music to the top of your library instead of the bottom. (Plus, there’s an ad link to CDNow.)

But patch and all, the song swapping service is now a far cry from its not too distant past. Sure, you can still find all sorts of weird stuff on other people’s hard drives: Monty Python sketches, ”South Park” outtakes, Sam Kinison’s riff on World Hunger, or even the theme to ”The Muppet Show.” But instead of a million plus users online at a time, now there are only a few hundred thousand diehards. It’s like being at an all night party only to find that someone’s turned on the house lights, there are empties everywhere, and somebody’s passed out on your couch. Shawn Fanning’s creation sure was fun while it lasted, but now I see it’s time to move on. Anyone got an aspirin and another invite?