Napster devotees get in their last licks


For digital music lovers around the world, yesterday was time to rock and roll.

Tens of thousands of them spent the day scrambling to download their favorite tunes by the gigabyte as word spread that a popular online source for music would shut down by midnight PDT tonight.

"I'm downloading 24/7," says Alex Markson, 22, a computer programmer at Canton start-up Gr8.

The source of the feeding frenzy was Napster, the song-swapping service with more than 20 million users.

Napster acts as an online clearinghouse, connecting people looking for digital MP3 music files with others who have them on their computers. Since it was launched last year, the service has enabled millions of people to download free - and often illegal - copies of songs by artists ranging from ABBA to Frank Zappa.

As Napster's popularity has ballooned, it has provoked a fierce battle with musicians and music publishers, who see Napster as little more than a tool for piracy. It has also given rise to a hot debate over who owns and controls digital content in the Internet age.

Earlier this year, the Recording Industry of America filed a lawsuit against the service for copyright infringement. On Wednesday, a federal judge ordered an injunction against Napster until the court case begins this fall.

The injunction has sparked a mad rush to download and an angry outcry from Napster users, who say the service has been unfairly targeted.

"You going to shut down the phone company because someone does something illegal over the phones? Bring down the whole Internet because people can get movies for free? Where do you draw the line?" says Napster addict Markson.

Markson has 15,000 songs on his computer - "enough that I can't even listen to all of them in my lifetime," he says.

But he wants more. More hip hop. More reggae.

Markson used to buy CDs but says the record companies charge unfairly high prices. So yesterday, Markson and his buddies spent the day writing computer code and downloading songs for free off Napster - snagging a few thousands in the past week, he says.

"You shut down Napster," he says, "it's just going to make me want to get MP3s even more."

Others apparently feel the same.

In the past week, 6,000 users have flocked to Napster and downloaded 600,000 songs, says Lee Rainie of the Pew Charitable Trusts, which has been monitoring the service as part of a project studying the Internet's effect on society.

By comparison, in April, 5,000 users logged onto Napster and swapped 500,000 music files, Rainie says.

"People are trying to get in their last licks," he says.

On message boards and chat rooms across the Internet yesterday, other Napster users decried the ruling as "a digital abomination," going as far as to list U.S. District Judge Marilyn Hall Patel's work and supposed home numbers for angry Napster supporters to call.

"You don't mess with Internet people," says Max Steiner, 25, a graphics designer in Madison, Wis., who has downloaded more than 7,000 songs from Napster. "They can find anything."

Steiner is joining the frantic rush to beat tonight's Napster shutdown. He said he'll be looking for some "classic '80s songs - Flock of Seagulls, stuff like that," for his MP3 collection that he has stored on about 30 recordable compact discs.

"I'll be on all day today and all day tomorrow," he says.

So will Todd Gilbert, 36, a Baltimore computer consultant who has about 2,000 songs in his collection. He spent yesterday afternoon fleshing out his Carpenters collection.

"The recording industry can point all the guns and money at Napster they want. They've already lost," Gilbert says. "They just don't know it's over."

Gilbert and other Napster devotees say that if the service shuts down, they'll simply go to one of the half-dozen or so other software programs such as Gnutella, iMesh or Freenet that have cropped up in recent months where they can share - again, in many cases illegally - music, Hollywood blockbusters such as "Gladiator" and software applications such as Microsoft Word.

Many of those Web sites reported yesterday that they were swamped with people trying to download the software.

Clark Cogan, 19, a student at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., says he'll use Napster until the final hour. After that, he says, he'll turn to iMesh to get more music.

"Everybody who's been paying attention to the news is flocking to get as many files as they can," Cogan says, "and all of those will end up being shared somewhere on the Internet.

"The trading of free music is a force that won't really be stopped. Napster wasn't just a program, it was a revolution."

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