Napster Knockoffs Proliferate; Kenwood Unveils MP3 Enhancement

For months now, the music industry has concentrated all its legal firepower on Napster, the Silicon Valley–based software company that lets users share music; and against San Diego's MP3.com, which lets users upload their music to a central server and then access it from any Internet-connected computer. As of the end of June, it appears that MP3.com will likely be co-opted by the industry's Big Five until it is no longer a threat—two of the major labels have already settled with the startup—but Napster will fight on.

Napster has argued that it is an Internet search engine and is therefore protected by law, despite the fact that its software enables users to violate copyrights. Napster has hired high-profile attorney David Boies as its lead counsel. Boies led the federal government's successful anti-trust case against Microsoft Corporation, and signed on with Napster because he feels the case "raises important questions" about the role of copyrights in the Internet age.

His participation in the case significantly ups the ante for all the litigants. The music industry has made a showcase lawsuit of its complaint against Napster, which earlier this year enjoyed a $13 million injection of cash from Hummer Winblad Venture Partners. The case is likely to drag on for several more months at enormous expense to all involved.

Meanwhile, similar search engines are popping up like mushrooms after a spring rain. One of the most sinister, from the music industry's perspective, is Gnutella, because it does not rely on a centralized server. Another is the recently launched "iRad-P Personal Music Network," available at AudioRamp.com. According to an early-June press release, AudioRamp's software allows users to "organize streaming media and MP3 files; manage digital music over multiple hardware playing devices; arrange music by genre, artist, album, or playlist; find new MP3 files on the Internet and download them automatically; create new playlists and share them with friends; and listen to your music anywhere, at any time."

AudioRamp.com president Dan Sheppard says "What we have developed with the iRad-P is a total solution allowing for the organizing and playing of digital music over multiple players." One interesting innovation is the AudioGrabber, a plug-in program for Web browsers that allows management of MP3 files from popular music sites. "The AudioGrabber will add the link to your music collection immediately, then download the file later," according to AudioRamp.com.

The company has yet to receive any cease-and-desist notices from the music industry. But even if that industry were to succeed in squashing the few most visible music search engines, others will appear: Technology has outrun the industry's ability to control it. The struggle for copyright protection is probably doomed, regardless of its moral, ethical, or legal correctness.

The music industry is now reaping the rewards of the message it has delivered unstintingly for 50 years. Since the advent of rock—some would say since the advent of jazz—the industry has promoted and profited from acts tinged with rebellion and disdain for authority. The subtext—that the rights of individuals supersede the rights of organizations—has been fully absorbed by the Internet generation. MP3 fans mock the hypocritical spectacle of acts like Metallica and Dr. Dre, who have made millions from feigned rebelliousness, suddenly demanding that their fans obey the law.

All posturing aside, the issue is about who will control the distribution of music—an issue that will be of enormous importance when high-speed connections become widespread and CD-quality or better audio is available everywhere.

Audiophiles in general have so far dismissed the issue as irrelevant because, despite the hype, the sound quality of MP3s is similar to AM radio. That may be about to change. Engineers at Kenwood have developed a technology (code-named Supreme Drive) that, they claim, re-creates high-frequency signals that are lost when music is converted into compressed digital data. Supreme Drive supplies the missing harmonics by mathematically re-processing fundamental tones in the compressed files. The result is a more natural sound, according to Kenwood.

Without revealing details, Kenwood says it plans to incorporate the technology into future digital audio products of its own, and will license the technology to other manufacturers and music-delivery service providers. "I think this could make a profound difference in the quality of MP3," audio engineer Duncan Harmon told ZDnet news. "This is obviously both a software and hardware solution that would be built into audio components such as car stereos, portable MP3 players, and the like. If it sounds as good as they say it does, I think Kenwood has got a real money-making technology on their hands." Whether the music industry will share in any of the profits remains to be seen.

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