The hot new buzzword in the personal computer world is "MP3." It could be important; indeed, some MP3 fans say this new technology could make your local music store and your local radio station obsolete. But MP3 has powerful enemies.

As some readers will already know, we're talking about the "Motion Picture Experts Group Layer 3 Compression Format," or "MP3" for short. It is an extension of MPEG, a software standard for turning movies into digital files that can be played on a computer screen.

MP3 is a software system that does the same thing for songs. It can convert a track from an audio CD into a digital file playable on a Macintosh or PC with Windows. The system also compresses the musical file into a (fairly) compact form so that it can be uploaded to, and downloaded from, the Internet.

There are hundreds of MP3 sites on the Internet. To find one, call up a search engine like Yahoo! and search for "MP3." A visit to any of them will demonstrate the value of this technology.

Let's say an unknown rock band called Slashing Neon Goldfish puts out a new album. With the MP3 software, any song on the CD can be turned into a computer file and uploaded to the Internet. Then rock fans, browsing the Web, can download the song, play it through the PC's speakers, and decide whether they like it.

The key point is that Slashing Neon Goldfish can distribute its music to an eager audience with no need for radio stations or record stores. MP3 means that start-up rock bands, or avant-garde classical composers, or unknown jazz artists, can reach an audience with no record company getting in the way.

You, too, can hear this music. Just about any computer with a modem and a sound card can receive and play MP3 files. People who really get into the technology can go one step further and buy a read-write CD-ROM drive. Then you can store the downloaded songs onto a CD; in other words, you can create a homemade album.

Naturally, this infuriates the record companies. How can their executives pay for the limo and the lunches at trendy Hollywood bistros if music fans don't need to buy CDs? And so music industry honchos like David Geffen and the artist formerly known as Prince have gone on the warpath. They are going to court to shut down many of the proliferating MP3 sites on the Internet.

And we can see their point. There's no doubt that some of the digitized music floating around the Net is pirate material. That is, somebody buys a pop CD, converts the songs to computer files, and uploads them to the Internet. Then everybody else can pull the tracks off the Net for free.

Accordingly, the record companies battling MP3 portray themselves as knights fighting a swarm of freeloaders.

In fact, the distinction between good guys and bad guys is not so clear. The record companies now campaigning for honesty are the same companies that regularly assault our teen-agers with filthy, violent, and racist lyrics and mindless, sex-soaked videos. And in choosing which records to make, the music industry mostly sticks to a few proven winners, leaving new bands or unknown composers out in the cold.

MP3 sites are often considerably more responsible than the record companies. Many of them screen out songs filled with foul language and violence. Those that include such songs often provide much clearer warnings than the record companies do. And the Internet music sites provide a crucial outlet for new composers and performers who can't even get in the door at the record companies.

As is often the case on the Internet, this is a battle that the little guys are likely to win. Since the Web is a global medium, it will be hard for the music industry to reach all the people putting up MP3 sites through American courts. The biggest threat to MP3 distribution of music is that the technology is hard to use.

You'll see what we mean if you go to an MP3 Web site and follow the directions for digitizing, downloading, or playing music. Things would be much, much simpler if all the necessary software were simply built into a Web browser. But because the U.S. Justice Department, in its battle with Microsoft, has suggested that bundling new features into software may be an antitrust violation, software companies have been reluctant to put all the necessary pieces together into one easy-to-use product.

MP3 may become as important as e-mail some day. But first the music industry, and the Justice Department, are going to have to find ways to live with this valuable new technology.

T.R. Reid is London bureau chief of the Washington Post. Brit Hume is managing editor of Fox News in Washington. You can reach them in care of the Washington Post Writers Group, 1150 15th St., Washington D.C. 20071-9200, or you can e-mail T.R. Reid at trreid@twp.com and Brit Hume at 72737.357@compuserve.com.

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