Will Napster Sing The Blues?

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Imagine tracking down your favorite songs on the Web and downloading them in MP3 format to your hard drive in a snap. A company whose services let you do just that has landed in legal hot water, and the resulting dispute could have a severe impact on what you can and can't download online.

The company, Napster, has software that allows you to freely search for and download terabytes -- thousands of gigabytes -- of music files. Popular versions of the Napster software for the Mac include Macster, Macstar, and Rapster -- all currently in pre-release form. Napster has also announced that a Mac version of its own software "will be available shortly."

Nothing is actually stored on Napster's servers. Users download files directly from each others' hard drives. Napster simply provides the interface for searching and connecting with those drives.

With Macster, you can search for a song title, an artist, or both -- and get a large list of results instantly.

Napster's Nemesis

That's not acceptable to the Recording Industry Association of America, a music company trade organization that has filed suit against Napster. The RIAA says it's fighting to protect the rights of recording artists, some of whom are waging their own legal fight against Napster. The heavy metal band Metallica filed its own lawsuit against Napster.

Napster says it's done nothing wrong. A company disclaimer notes that Napster can't control what content is available and also warns users that they're responsible for complying with all copyright laws. Napster users must also agree not to use the software to infringe on others' intellectual property.

What's In It for Mac?

Mac users have more than a sporting interest in how the legal fight shakes down. The Napster suits could determine the future of how materials get distributed on the Internet. A Napster loss could limit what files are available online -- and how much you'd have to pay to retrieve them. A Napster win could force record companies to rethink the way they do business.

More than just the fate of MP3 files is at stake. The future of digital video could also be affected by the case. Already, two Web site have been blocked from offering to the public DeCSS, a utility that lets users break the copy protection used in DVD movies. DeCSS has been the only tool that lets Linux users watch DVDs.

The Napster cases have yet to go to trial, but it's clear that the future of digital music will be too lucrative for record companies to shun. And it's a dispute to keep an eye on as you build your own MP3 library.

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