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Stealing Audiophiles: When Stealing Means the Click of a Mouse, Music Piracy Is No Surprise

foodservices.55.gif: Graphic by courtney clench. Map courtesy of MIT planning office COMPETITION ON CAMPUS -- If the dining working groupUs recommendations are adopted, two companies will provide food service on campus, one for main campus (green), and for west campus and the Sloan School (red). Closed dormitory dining halls may open by the years indicated, and current dining halls may service neighboring dormitories with catered foods.

Wesley T. Chan

I recently visited an illicit Web search site that specialized in the listing of pirated digitized audio files. I wanted to see if the rumors that I could find any song I wanted on the Internet were true. I typed in the name of a popular pop song and found no fewer than 16 computers that had a digitized copy available for me to download with the click of a mouse.

I also typed in both Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata and several Beatles oldies. The search engine returned a similar number of Internet computers where I could have download the music. It appears that any song is fair game for posting on of the Internet, regardless of whether it was released three centuries ago or three weeks ago. Chances are, if you know the name of it, you can find it on the Internet.

This wanton piracy of copyrighted music over the Internet seems inevitable given the recent increase in Internet bandwidth and the wide dissemination of MPEG technology - a data compression standard used encode high-quality digital audio and video files. After all, the process of converting an entire CD of music into digital MPEG audio files is so amazingly simple that practically any computer neophyte can figure it out in a matter of minutes: You simply pop a music CD into your CD-ROM drive, grab the files off using a program called a "ripper," and run them through a program that compresses and transforms your ripped data into CD-quality MPEG files that get uploaded to the Internet. The process is almost entirely automated. Once the MPEG files are on the Internet, anyone online can download them.

The recording industry is up in arms about this new electronic piracy predicament that they're facing. They've shifted their resources from cracking down on counterfeit CD and cassette manufacturers to taking off illegal music piracy sites from the Web.

Electronic audio piracy is so widespread that there are even rogue MPEG distribution Web sites at MIT. In fact, these MIT sites have caught the attention of the Recording Industry Association of America, an umbrella organization that represents a collective of record companies including industry giants like Capitol Records and Geffen/DGC Records. The RIAA recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to President Charles M. Vest demanding the removal of such sites under the threat of legal action against both MIT and the people responsible for distributing pirated MPEG files over the Internet.

This new problem seems strangely similar to a phenomenon that long preceded the MPEG piracy epidemic. Software piracy has been happening since well before the MPEG compression standard was introduced. Back in 1994, an MIT student, David M. LaMacchia '95, was indicted for wire fraud by the federal government for allegedly using two Athena workstations as an Internet distribution site for pirated software. A judge eventually dismissed the case.

For years, the Internet has been a hotbed of software piracy. If you ever wanted the latest copy of any game, word processing program, or operating system, even if it wasn't released yet, you could find it on the Internet for free. You could just log on, search for an illegal "warez" distribution site containing the copyrighted software you wanted, and download, for free, programs selling in stores for over $100 onto your computer.

Unfortunately, the piracy problem, despite the software industry's best efforts to combat it, has become worse than ever. Programs are still being pirated at epidemic rates over the Internet, and the Software Publishing Association, a group analogous to the RIAA, estimates that it lost $11.2 billion dollars from 543 million pirated copies of commercial software in 1996.

However, both the recording and software industries may soon have something to celebrate. If Congressman Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) and six of his colleagues in the House of Representatives have their way, the possession of unauthorized copyrighted works "of value" will be a criminal offense punishable by up to three years in jail and a $250,000 fine. The bill that they are proposing is called the "No Electronic Theft" or "NET" Bill.

Goodlatte, in an introductory statement in the House this past July, remarked that "pirating works online is the same as shoplifting a video tape, book, or computer program from a department store." Calling the Internet the "Home Shoplifting Network," Goodlatte compared the act of digital piracy to the idea of an individual "making millions of photocopies of a best selling book and giving them away."

But even in the face of new legislation and all the cease-and-desist letters that the SPA and RIAA sends, the celebration won't last for long. Electronic piracy of software and music will most certainly continue at epidemic rates. Until Goodlatte and those who think like him realize that copying a program or grabbing a song off a CD is a lot easier and cheaper than making a million photocopies of a book, no deterrent to piracy will work. And given the past track record of pirates, as we discover newer and more efficient ways of digitizing different types of media, electronic piracy will expand well beyond software and music.

If the current trend continues, pirated full-length movies, among other things, may be available over the Internet in less than a couple of years. The lure of getting something for nothing is just too great, and despite any new legislation or ineffective legal threats, more and more industries will find themselves in the same piracy predicament that the software and recording industries currently face.