No threat for record companies

The open-source movement has inspired countless debates about copyright issues. One such issue came to mind recently when I discovered a utility called Napster which searches one of several Internet databases for recorded music.

The open-source movement has inspired countless debates about copyright issues. One such issue came to mind recently when I discovered a utility called Napster. Napster searches one of several Internet databases for recorded music. If you find any songs you like, you can download and play them anytime.

The MP3 format is what makes it reasonable to download one of these songs. For example, I recently grabbed a song from a CD that was more than 64MB in its raw form. But it compresses down to 5.8MB as an MP3 file. Although I can hear the difference in quality if I listen carefully, the MP3 version sounds close enough to the original to be acceptable.

Given the limited bandwidth most folks have to the Internet, a few megabytes per song is still far from ideal. But it's tolerable over a cable modem, and you can always queue up several songs and let them download overnight.

In theory, Napster should be an excellent start to the notion of providing music on demand over the Internet. In practice, it's a whole 'nother thing. Most of the music you'll find on the Internet through Napster is pirated. Besides -- although your tastes are probably quite different -- I couldn't find any songs I really wanted even if I were willing to break the law.

But I did try to get some of the songs that were available, anyway. And I'm glad I did, because it taught me just how bad Napster really is. The supposed strength of Napster is its capability of quickly finding what you want. But the search process is terribly unpredictable. Because Napster connects to different databases at different times, you get wildly varying search results. Sometimes you get one hit, several hits, or none -- all using the same search criteria.

Once you actually find something you want to download, there's a good chance that Napster will choke on the file. After countless tries at various songs by a wide range of artists, I was able to download only five complete files. And in one case the download time was excruciatingly slow.

All in all, it is still far more convenient to purchase a CD than to try to use Napster to get the same music. Nevertheless, the music business understandably hates Napster because it encourages piracy. The knee-jerk reaction is to make it more difficult to copy and distribute recorded music in order to crack down on the piracy. But I wonder if the music industry ought to see a new opportunity when it looks at Napster instead.

Sooner or later people are going to get music on demand over the Internet. Rather than fight it, the music industry should embrace that approach quickly and find new ways to make money doing it.

For example, a smart record company could make good money by doing Napster right. Record companies could make their entire database of music available, thus solving the recurring problem of getting blank search results in Napster. Then they could make it easy to find music by indexing their database intelligently. And they could broaden the potential audience by making the search process possible via a Web browser as well as a dedicated programme such as Napster. Finally, they could put the music on a server farm tuned for high availability. Record companies could charge customers a modest subscription fee to get the music service. The rate structure could follow usage patterns. The more you use the service, the higher the subscription fee, up to a flat rate premium service that gets you unlimited downloads. The record companies could also create a free channel for new music. Charge new artists for studio time, then publish their music on the free channel. If the artists catch on, the company can contract with the musicians to provide material for the subscription channel.

This approach -- or something like it -- wouldn't put an end to the pirating of music. But it wouldn't make pirating any easier than it already is. Instead, it would offer an affordable, high-quality alternative to getting your music on the sly. If record companies move quickly to make access easy, fast, and reliable, they could make it worth the price of a subscription to avoid the Napster hassles.

Nicholas Petreley is contributing editor at LinuxWorld and InfoWorld, and works with the Linux Standard Base courtesy of Caldera.

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