Technology thwarts pirates

Late in 2002, during the height of Kazaa's unregulated use, Madonna tried to stop fans from illegally trading her songs.

She set out a series of files disguised to look like music from her "American Life" album. Kazaa users who downloaded the files were surprised to find that, though they looked like full Madonna MP3s, they were actually just a few seconds of music, according to www.techtv.com. After those few seconds, Madonna herself interjected a simple question to the file-swappers: "What the f-- do you think you're doing?"

While it made for a good bit of entertainment news, posting fake songs to deter file-swappers is unlikely to do much more than annoy those determined to get their favorite music for free, said Mark Sarisky, AU's audio technology adviser. Still, the Recording Industry Association of America has not given up on using technology to halt music piracy.

A number of tactics are being used, most of which can be classified as technology that hinders piracy, or technology that offers file-swappers alternative, legal means of downloading songs.

The first category, piracy-blocking technologies, debuted with a number of problems. In 2000, the first of a new generation of copy-protected CDs were sold. Though designed to stop pirates from ripping the tracks from CDs and putting them on computers to be traded, the copy protection system was "a pain in the butt," according to Sarisky.

The discs wouldn't play on some older stereos, and hackers quickly found ways to bypass the technology. A simple Google search yields hundreds of sites with explanations for those who wish to circumvent the copy-protection systems. Though copy protection has improved, piracy has kept up, as pirates inevitably find new ways around the systems, which sometimes can be as easy as sticking a piece of tape to the bottom of the CD.

The RIAA also employs digital watermarks as a more effective technique to deter pirates. By inserting special software into CDs, a mark is placed on songs that are ripped onto computers. According to Sarisky, this makes the music traceable back to the original owner if it is traded. Once identified, legal action can be taken against the person who first posted the music online.

Eric Weakland, AU's network security administrator, said "the recording industry hires firms like Mediaforce and NetPD to go out and scan the file-sharing networks looking for users that are sharing files copyrighted by members of the RIAA."

Though RIAA representatives could not be reached for comment, its Web site stated, "In cyberspace, the RIAA's team of Internet Specialists, with the assistance of a 24-hour automated Web crawler, helps to stop Internet sites that make illegal recordings available."

AU communications professor Darrell Hayes said the site fails to mention that "the RIAA ... [employs] programs that will spam the site or simulate high volume downloads so that the server will bog down and prevent much file-sharing."

The other category of technologies used by the RIAA and record companies to stop illegal music swapping are those designed to draw users away from services like Kazaa and get them to download their music legally.

Many of these services, including Rhapsody and Pressplay, have huge music libraries and allow users to pay a flat rate and listen to (but not download) as much music as they like. For an extra fee, subscribers can download the songs to their computers.

Sarisky noted most of these use a "tethered download" system. The songs downloaded are watermarked, and CD burners won't work with them. Despite all these options, technological means remain secondary to legal means in the RIAA's ongoing fight against piracy.

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