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Sounding off: MP3 heading for mainstream?

By Marc Saltzman

March 26, 1998
Web posted at: 3:42 PM EST (1542 GMT)

(CNN) -- The war continues to rage between the omnipotent U.S. recording industry and the thousands of pirates over the issue of MP3 encoding, usage, and distribution. Chances are, music fans that spend time surfing the Web or hanging out on IRC have found themselves caught in the middle of this heated legal -- and moral -- debate. But if this is the first you've heard of MP3s, then listen up, because this technology is making serious waves in the digital ocean we call the Internet, and is changing the face of music distribution, as we know it.

Developed a few years back in Germany at the Fraunhofer Gesellschaft Research Institute, MP3s, or MPEG (Moving Picture Experts Group) 1 layer 3 audio, is a compression technique used in audio coding that is capable of shrinking musical information from a compact disc by a factor of 12, without losing any noticeable sound quality.

In plain English, MP3s are near CD-quality music files you can download and play on your computer by using one of the many free MP3 players found on the Internet. A five-minute pop song uncompressed would be about 50 megabytes (in .WAV format, for example) but when applying MP3 compression, the size reduces to approximately 4 megabytes. Therefore, downloading a song would only take a few minutes even on a 28.8 modem. A faster connection, such as ISDN or cable modems, means the songs can be streamed so it can be heard immediately as it is downloading to the hard disk.

Now, here's where the legal issue saunters in.

The latest craze on the World Wide Web, IRC, FTP, and Hotline, is to download and/or trade copy-written MP3 songs or albums, entirely for free. For instance, it's quite easy to find the newest Pearl Jam album "Yield" in its entirety, various versions of Madonna's new single, Sarah McLachlan's popular "Sweet Surrender," plus many other official releases and live or studio bootleg recordings. Needless to say, reproducing and distributing copyrighted sound recordings without authorization is a violation of federal copyright laws.

There are MP3 search engines that let you select a song name or artist, then direct you to the corresponding Web site or FTP archive. Or, with a valid credit card, you can purchase custom-made CDs chock full of MP3s -- over 150 songs per disc to be exact -- for about the price of a regular CD. Furthermore, portable MP3 players exist, with more in the works.

Playing music on your PC or Mac may not sound like a viable threat to record companies, but consider that most computers have sound cards and speakers and plenty of people work or play in front of their computer for extended periods of time. Why purchase the full retail CD when you can hear the entire album (or only the songs you want), in CD-quality, for free?

This is the question that troubles the recording industry, and subsequently, music labels have taken a stand by sending threatening letters to Webmasters demanding immediate closure of their sites and in some cases, they have taken MP3 pirates to court -- and won.

Frank Creighton, VP and associate director of anti-piracy at the Recording Industry Association of America confirms the RIAA hasn't been able to put a lost-dollar figure on MP3s yet, but it is considered a very serious crime that threatens the recording industry.

"Downloading an MP3 is no different that walking into a record store, putting a CD in your pocket, and walking out without paying." Creighton says. "There is no easy solution here. We need all the players in the industry to stand together -- record labels, hardware and software engineers and ISPs -- so we can heighten the public awareness of its illegality, enforce the law and find new technology to try to help combat this piracy."

Some of this "new technology" includes possible ways of encrypting music CDs so it's harder to copy them in a digital format that can be placed on the Internet.

In rebuttal, many of the so-called "MP3 evangelists" charge the music industry for over-inflating the price of a retail CD and go so far to argue that the music industry itself is to blame for MP3 piracy.

Michael Robertson, newswriter for, says that "while CD prices continue to rise, the music industry seems oblivious to customer outcries for alternatives."

"Unfortunately, with U.S. profits predicted to hit $3 billion in 1998, the industry has little motivation to change," he says.

In response to the specific copyright infringement of artists and labels, some college students interviewed via e-mail seem to mirror Robertson's position.

"If labels like Sony, Geffen, or Capitol think that all of us can afford to pay $17 a CD for one or two good songs, they've got another thing coming." says one anonymous 25-year-old male. "I'd rather download the songs I want for free off the Net and pay a friend five dollars to burn it onto a CD for me. Just cut out the middle man."

Other headlines at include "Pay for the music, not some fat guy in a Lexus" and "Free Music and the Fall of Record Companies."

"The majority of the consumers are naive as to what goes into the price of a CD," RIAA's Creighton says. "There are artists, engineers, lawyers, studio musicians, touring. Only the top 15 percent of the music industry makes money, while the other 85 percent loses money."

While both sides battle it out, some key players in this once-underground but now-booming industry take a more neutral stand. Such is the case with Dmitry Boldyrev, one of the developers at Nullsoft, creators of the most popular MP3 players, WinAmp and MacAmp.

"MP3 encoded songs are absolutely legal. Some people use them to distribute copyrighted music on the Net, but not everyone," says Boldyrev. "At this point I'd like to refer you to for free MP3 music they have been releasing lately."

Game developers have also caught on to MP3s' high sound quality and relatively small size for use in computer and console games, while other companies are demonstrating the abilities of their audio products by employing MP3 technology with their keyboards, synthesizers, and drum machine product lineup.

A new audio compression technology is rolling out, dubbed MPEG-2 AACs, or Advanced Audio Coding. It is a new MPEG audio format that allows for files half the size of MP3 with the same quality. AT&T's a2b system is employing AACs, but AT&T has taken tremendous security precautions so the songs won't play without a specific license key and "digital signature" so the songs you pay to download to a PC can only be played on that particular PC.

Can the recording industry, through the RIAA, close down MP3 sites for good? Will pirates find a way to access AAC technology? What about this new MP4 format in the works?

As "convergence" becomes more of a reality and less of a catch phrase, music copyright violations will continue to escalate, especially with better compression, recordable DVD-ROMs, and cable modems. It will not be an easy fight, but the Internet has opened the floodgates to piracy, and the RIAA will try to dam the waters to protect the interests and future of the recording industry.


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