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Never fear; Kazaa Lite is here. Despite its name, Kazaa Lite is not a scaled-down version of the original. Rather, it's an improvement. On Kazaa Lite, you can tinker with a setting to ensure that other users can't tell what music -- other than the song they're downloading -- is in your collection. In this way, the RIAA can't tell how many files you have available to share.
What's more, Kazaa Lite purports to block the IP addresses of RIAA computers, hindering the searches of record industry investigators.
But Nick seems almost dismissive of Kazaa Lite. "Have you ever heard of Direct Connect Plus Plus?" he asks.
Direct Connect connects not with other users directly, like Kazaa, but through a hub. That hub is overseas, beyond the reach of the RIAA. As he connects, a list of hubs with names like "Buick's Moviearena" scroll down the screen. Each hub has hundreds of users. Unlike Kazaa, these hubs have requirements of their members. If you want to download, you must have a minimum amount of files to share. For instance, this hub wants 70 gigabytes, which equates to dozens of movies and thousands of songs. Nick, of course, has that and more. He opens up a user's list. Want to download Linkin Park's new album? How about The Hulk? What about The League of Extraordinary Gentleman? Direct Connect is a smorgasbord of entertainment. One hub Nick opens boasts 5.42 terabytes available for trade -- that's 5,550 gigabytes. We're talking whole libraries here.
Nick's biggest surprise is one of the most implausible. "Actually," he says, "one of the best places to download stuff is, believe it or not, on AOL." Yes, America Online -- that much-maligned home to bored teenagers and hard-up adults. On AOL, there are chatrooms -- public and private. Enter the right private chatroom and you won't see any of the banal conversation that chatrooms are known for. Instead, you'll see a steady stream of messages that are more symbols than letters. These are downloaders, exchanging lists of material for trade.
It seems, though, that this kind of downloading would be the most easily halted. All the RIAA has to do is find one of the rooms, write down the member name and report it to AOL, which, after all, is the parent company of Warner Bros., one of the Big Five labels.
Nick explains why this would be fruitless. Many of these screen names, he says, aren't even legit. They're pirated names, stolen by hackers from unsuspecting AOL account holders. They're untraceable. In Nick's eyes, this practice crosses a line. Downloading is one thing. Who's the victim? Corporate America? But hijacking individual screen names and passwords -- that's going too far, it seems. Still, there's a gleam in his eye.
"It's all about keeping it free," he says.
To be sure, downloaders such as Nick don't have much to worry about from the RIAA. "The sophisticated people will always be able to stay one step ahead," says Jim Butler, a technology attorney in Atlanta and a board member of the U.S. Internet Industry Association. "But that's not who [the RIAA] care about. The 20-year-old college student who has 5,000 songs -- that's their target."
As the first lawsuits draw near, the drumbeat has grown louder for a new business model for the entertainment industry. Some have suggested a tax on blank CDs, with the pot of money being divvied up based on what songs are downloaded and how often. But who determines how big that pot of money should be? And what's to keep a savvy musician from harnessing a bank of computers and downloading his own song a million times, so that he'll get a bigger cut?
Others hope for a technological solution. "Digital rights management" is a phrase heard often in the industry. Basically, it refers to any technique that encrypts a CD, or keeps it from being ripped and shared. But Nick only laughs at that. "Anything they build can be unbuilt," he says.
Meanwhile, the Electronic Frontier Foundation and other groups are fighting the RIAA's efforts to demonize file-sharing. Its "Let the Music Play" campaign, as von Lohmann explains, is intended to "get people to start talking about alternatives. Do you really think suing thousands of people and jailing hundreds more is really the right course of action here? We have to create a mechanism for paying artists, because file-sharing is here to stay."
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