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All for a song: While Napster's fate hangs in balance, find other alternatives E-Mail this report to a friend

Anita Bora

For music lovers around the world it was a dream come true.

Unlimited access to a huge of database of songs, convenient, and easy to download. Songs in a format that could be stored on a hard disk, shared, downloaded and played. Most importantly, after paying exorbitant prices for CDs and cassettes, users had access to music that was actually free of cost.

Just in case some of you were napping while it happened, Napster is a company that made available a software that combined chat features and a music player, letting users share their MP3 libraries with each other. The files weren't actually hosted on Napster servers, instead, the servers served as a gateway making the file exchange possible. Also, a tracking program helped users compile MP3 libraries that could be browsed at their convenience.

Napster Napster was among the most popular services on the Internet, with 57 million registered users and an average 8.5 million using the service on any given day. However, like most things free - it did not last long.

When millions of songs began to get swapped through Napster, record companies and music artistes realised the potential damage this activity could do to their business. The larger issue of copyright problems became a point of contention, and artistes argued that Napster should not be allowed to offer for free, what they could sell.

imeshTry telling that to Napster users though, who have grown to over 50 million over the last two years. Their feelings are well encapsulated in what Manish, a 36-year-old manager of an IT company says, "Music, like air, should be available for free." With the current problems Napster has been facing, Manish is trying to find an alternative, and he now uses i-Mesh to find MP3 files.

iMesh is another file-sharing tool that lets you search for files (including text, MP3) on other computers running the iMesh client. One its best features is its ability to simultaneously download a file from up to five other computers at once. This means that even if a user goes offline or the transfer is interrupted, the download continues.
File swapping services

:: Gnutella
:: Audio Galaxy
:: Spin Frenzy Exchange
:: iMesh
:: Cute MX
:: Freenet Project
:: KaZaA
:: Napigator
:: SongSpy
:: File Rogue
:: Filetopia
:: Audio Gnome



Reports from web sites offering similar services said that their hits had gone up significantly after the ruling against Napster. Sites like Gnutella and Scour posted notices saying that extensive traffic had forced them to close down temporarily, just after the Napster hearing.

Sheldon Sequeira, a 24-year-old writer and ardent music fan, spent hours downloading music with the Napster client. He claims to have over a 100 songs. However, he has now shifted loyalties to Audio Galaxy, a similar file swapping network, and says that he is happy with the services, including the range of songs he has access to.

AudioEchoing his sentiments, 19-year-old Niren, a student at St. Andrews, Bandra, says, "I've recently started using Audio Galaxy Satellite to download my songs, since it works in pretty much the same way Napster does, by sharing songs from other users' hard-drives. Audio Galaxy also offers the 'resume' feature which Napster doesn't, while still allowing you to find almost any song."

With the resume feature, even if the download is interrupted in the middle of a song, it begins exactly where you left off the last time when you restart it.

Parmeet Singh, 23, an IT executive who spent many hours downloading music from Napster found that, apart from the free music, the interface was the biggest draw of the service.

While Parmeet has tried alternatives like Gnutella, a close competitor to Napster which allows all kinds of files to be exchanged (including MP3 and text files), he does not find their services as good as Napster's. "Gnutella is good, but does not give me the variety and range that Napster gave. It is also not very easy to use, and the interface can be a little daunting to the new user," he says.

gnutella Gnutella is one of the most popular alternatives for fleeing Napster users, and its user base has grown significantly over the last few months. Though, like Parmeet says, it is slightly daunting for a new user, this page from Zeropaid, helps users get comfortable with using the network. Bearshare is one such Gnutella client, that allows users to share files on the Gnutella network.

Another development in peer-to-peer file sharing is the Freenet Project, created by Ian Clarke. A decentralised, information storage and retrieval system, Freenet is designed to allow free distribution of information on the Internet. It provides anonymity to those placing and accessing information from it. Nobody has charge over or control of Freenet, not even its creators, and this is perhaps the greatest advantage it has over Napster. The project is still under development and you can check on its progress by visiting the site.

navigator The advantage that most of these services have over Napster is that they lack central servers, and are harder to control or monitor. Moreover, services like Gnutella, Audio Galaxy, i-Mesh, Freenet, Napigator and others are all applications or protocols, and are therefore designed to circumvent the law, since they cannot be sued directly.

There are also many places on the Net where one can access legal music.

Pay per download (to ensure that no copyrights are being infringed) has been the way many MP3 sites have been selling music. Sites like Amazon.com, iCrunch and Tower Records (US) use this format, wherein you choose the song, listen to the sample, and then add it to your shopping basket if you want to buy it.

Record companies and artistes are naturally a big fan of this kind of a system, since it is relatively easy and adds to their offline business. In fact, BMG is not only working with Napster but is also pushing its own Bluematter pay-per-download system.

Music sites

:: iCrunch
:: Tower Records
:: Blue Matter
:: Liquid Audio
:: MP3
:: Streamwaves
:: Kick
:: Throttle Box
:: eMusic

EMI's music is available from Liquid Audio and a range of different retailers. The company is working with Streamwaves to operate a subscription service. Sony is said to be working on something similar, and hundreds of record labels have partnered with MP3.com and eMusic.

Then, Throttlebox.com is working with BMG and ASCAP to offer music free of cost and ensure that all composers and publishers are compensated for their work. Kick.com is another free service that, along with music, provides reviews and biographies.

So which single factor will decide where the music loving mass will migrate? Will they develop a conscience, respect artistes, feel sorry for record companies and begin paying for music they download from the Net?

Or, will they continue to use illegal copyrighted material freely available through other software and services such as Freenet and Gnutella that will probably continue even if Napster shuts down? Did Napster open a Pandora's Box or spark off a revolution in the digital music industry? Your guess is as good as ours.

ADDITIONAL LINKS
Napster Pressroom
CNet - Let Napster play on
Tech TV - Listen to both sides yourself
ISP Planet - Down, but not out
Wired - Napster Knocks of a No-Go
Upside - Napster working on a restricted MP3 format
Geek - Napster to use MP3 protection plan
ZDNet - Napster's new tune
Latest news about Napster

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