Where will the free music come from if Napster is silenced?
If you think of the Internet as a virtual shopping mall, you'll still find online kiosks, boutiques, department stores and warehouse outlets that offer millions of pirated music files that won't cost a cent.
File-sharing programs such as Gnutella, iMesh, and Scour are picking up where Napster left off - and will probably flourish in an age where more and more people are realizing the Internet can get it for you for free.
"In some ways the crackdown on Napster has just energized the pirate community," says Steve Allen, a digital music expert at About.com who coordinates its MP3.about.com page.
Last week a federal judge in California issued an injunction that would put the Internet's premier file-sharing service out of business, although an appeals court granted a temporary stay of execution. The decision appeared to be a victory for the recording industry, which sued Napster to put a stop to what it regarded as rampant piracy. But Allen and others aren't so sure.
"The lawsuit has called attention to the MP3 phenomenon. If anything, it's made the public aware that they are able to get free music off the Internet," Allen said.
He said he's heard reports of "rogue" Napster servers - which provide the same capability but have no connection to the company. They're available through a small, unauthorized Napster accessory program called Napigator, also available free on the Internet.
But the savvy Internet pirate doesn't need to cling to Napster technology. The Jolly Roger flag is flying high at the alternative file-sharing communities of Gnutella and Freenet, where officials report a sudden influx of "freeloaders" - the nickname for cyber-surfers who prowl the Net for free music.
A San Francisco-based "Web tour" service, SpotOn Inc., has even put out a handy Internet guide to the best file-trading bazaars - or piracy havens, as the Recording Industry Association of America calls them.
The availability of these simple file-sharing programs will continue to haunt recording artists and their publishers. Almost none of them believes the victory in court will win the war they're fighting against an unprecedented wave of copyright infringement.
"As an industry, we must find a way to give music fans what they want, which is fast and easy music on the Internet," said Noah Stone, director of Artists Against Piracy coalition. "While Napster's technology is very compelling, the business has shown no respect for the artists who create the music everyone wants to hear, download, trade and profit from."
The Napster alternatives offer no more respect for the record industry - and they're likely to fare better than Napster because they're fighting the equivalent of a guerrilla war. Unlike Napster, programs such as iMesh, Gnutella and Freenet don't require users to list or trade their files on a central server. Instead, they seek out content on the hard drives of other file sharers.
That means there's no specific target for the industry's army of lawyers. "Bottom line is that there's no central place to sue," says Philip Copeland, CEO of SpotOn. "It becomes a much more interesting debate about how to stop people from sharing their files. There are people out there doing this that are going to be less vulnerable to legal attack."
What's more, many of the next generation of file-sharing programs are on the next digital battlefield - video piracy.
Video files are much larger than their music counterparts. A typical 90-minute movie, for example, is over 150 megabytes in size, compared with 3 or 4 megabytes for the average MP3 music file. But broadband Internet access through cable modems and the high-speed T3 lines on college campuses is making movie downloads more practical.
"It's still an hour or two to download a movie on your cable modem, but that's really nothing if you can get 'The Perfect Storm' prior to it hitting the video store," Copeland said. "It's still pretty cutting edge right now, but it won't be too long before people discover how easy it is to download a free movie."
Most of these programs, which also include CuteMX, AppleSoup, SpinFrenzy and DivX, are relatively easy to use, like Napster. All a user has to do is download a small setup file, install it and join the file-sharing community.
A recent visit to iMesh, for example, showed 20,000 people online, sharing libraries that ranged from the movie "Toy Story 2" to dozens of Metallica songs. For pirates, this is a delicious irony, since Metallica members were at the forefront of the assault on Napster.
Although the record and film industries call them pirates, many practitioners don't believe they're doing anything wrong. They see piracy as a legitimate protest against what they perceive as excess profiteering by CD and movie producers.
A recent study by the Pew Charitable Trusts indicated that at least 13 million Americans have used Napster to trade more than 2 billion music files. Many are likely to turn to another program in the wake of Napster's demise.
"There's no end to these programs, and seemingly no end to the number of people who think it's perfectly OK to use them," says Joel Thierstein, professor of telecommunications law at Baylor University in Texas.
"I don't think that it's going to stop unless they become afraid to do it. If they start to hear about somebody downloading music and going to jail, then they'll start to think more. But with millions of people out there downloading free stuff, it's going to be hard to pick who to prosecute."
Indeed, Napster's demographics indicated a preponderance of otherwise solid citizens. More than half its users were over 30, and many middle-aged users said Napster was the only way they could find songs from the '50s or '60s teen-oriented music stores don't carry.
"The Internet is the big candy store in the sky for music," says Christine Grant, a 52-year-old mother of five living in Keene, N.H. Two of her children use Napster and so does she, getting songs by Van Morrison and Etta James, among others.
"People are not going to cave in, and say, 'Oh, the record industry is right, we'll just have to go back to the record stores and start paying those high prices again,'" said Grant, who wrote a letter to the RIAA after the Napster injunction. "No matter how much money they pour into it, the record industry is not going to stop people from downloading. ... The 'pirates' want the music."
Here are sites where you can explore options for sharing music over the Internet:
AppleSoup (coming soon): www.applesoup.com