Napster is a dinosaur, stuck in a legal bog and facing extinction from a cataclysmic event of courtroom proportions.

That doesn't mean its progeny can't evolve. While the pioneering peer-to-peer music sharing service seems destined to die of wounds inflicted in federal court, those who hope to inherit its worldwide network of freeloading music lovers are changing shapes in hopes of avoiding the same fate.

But they're not the only ones making changes. The record industry and other enforcers of copyright law are planning new tactics as well, hoping to chase those amphibious music fans onto the shore if they manage to grow some new feet.

Napster was designed to help Internet users share digital copies of songs stored in their computers as MP3 files. The company itself served as a middleman for these exchanges, providing a central file directory and a place for users to reach each other.

Napster's problem, from an evolutionary point of view, was its reliance on central computers. When record companies sought to block people from trading unauthorized copies of their songs, their lawyers aimed the weight of federal copyright law directly at those servers and scored a direct hit.

The servers, you see, gave Napster a theoretical opportunity to block unauthorized trades by filtering out certain song titles. Because it never took that action until too late, the company is now liable for billions of dollars worth of copyright infringements.

That's why Napster's would-be replacements are losing those central servers like lizards dropping their tails.

Nebulous foe

Gnutella, the leading example, helps Net users swap songs and other digital files among themselves. There's no central system or even a company to sue, since the program was cobbled together by hobbyists and released for free.

"Gnutella can withstand a band of hungry lawyers," boasts an information page at gnutellanews.com, a popular hub for the program's users. "It's reliable, it's sharing terabytes of data and it's absolutely unstoppable."

Another service hopes to turn copyright law against the record industry. Aimster, which combines file swapping with instant messaging, has begun encrypting all its files. So if the music industry wants to monitor the network for copyrighted songs, it would have to crack that encryption. But that would violate an anti-code-cracking clause in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the draconian federal law that the industry practically begged Congress to pass.

Aimster also inserted some odd language in its user agreement that prohibits users from opening the files they download. If anyone actually followed those terms, it would defeat the purpose of the software. But when the company gets sued, it can argue it did everything it could to block copyright violations. Conveniently enough, the law that prevents record companies from snooping on the files that users trade also stops Aimster from trying to block them.

Music industry lawyers might be stymied by these advancements, but they won't go hungry for long. Indeed, they're already redirecting their efforts toward the most vulnerable link in the song-swapping food chain: home users.

Tracking down users

A company called Copyright.net illustrates how the future might play out. On behalf of musicians and other clients, it scours the song-sharing networks to find computers where particular songs have been made available for download.

In the case of Napster users, Copyright.net gets those computers locked off the system until they remove the offending files from their shared directories. But if the song is being traded through a decentralized network like Gnutella, the company starts serving subpoenas on ISPs to identify the users themselves.

Trying to wage legal battles against individual users isn't exactly cost effective, particularly when many of them live outside the United States. But by making examples of a few unfortunate music lovers, the industry could hope to convince millions of others that the next free song they download might bring a lawyer along for the ride.

The state of online music, then, seems as muddy as primordial soup. It's clear that Napster's demise won't end the odd battle between record companies and their customers. But will music fans ever manage to outrun these subpoena-slinging predators? And can giant, lumbering corporations hope to protect their copyrights in an environment as hostile as the Net?

Many describe the spread of digital music on the Internet as a revolution. But by the time its competing forces work themselves out, the victors will be the ones who have mastered evolution.

To contact syndicated columnist Joe Salkowski, you can e-mail him at joes@azstarnet.com or write to him c/o Tribune Media Services Inc., 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, IL 60611.

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