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Give me the music to free my soul

The record companies are up in arms about music sharing over the internet. Susan D Seeking offers a guide to free, almost-free and paid-for sources

November 1, 2005
5 min read

You can purchase a CD writer for your computer for under £20 and blank CDs from as little as 10p from sources such as www.bigpockets.co.uk. You can convert a CD to MP3 format (the commonest format for online music) and have it uploaded in the time it would take to play the first track. You can locate and download a huge selection of music of your choice by using one of the various file-sharing programmes freely available over the web.

Sharing and downloading copyrighted music may not be lawful, but there are more than 60 million people in the US alone who are doing it. That’s more than voted for George Bush. And that’s why the music industry has started suing people as a deterrent.

Leaving aside the legal and moral arguments about getting your music for free (Red Pepper’s musical conscience suggests that direct payments to struggling artists and support for live music are more equitable than putting exorbitant sums into the pockets of HMV and Sony), how exactly do these millions of people do it? And what are the lawful alternatives?

Unlawful file sharing

Napster was the most famous music-sharing organisation. Its simple software enabled users to download whatever music they required by searching through the files made available by other users. Napster was shut down as a free service as a result of legal action by the big record companies, but others have sprung up in its place. They come and go, but eMule (www.emule-project.net), Soulseek (www.slsk net.org), Limewire (www.limewire .com) and Acquisition (www.zero paid.com/acquisition) are among the more popular ones currently available online. BitTorrent (www.bittorrent.com) allows users to download a ‘tracker’ file (rather than the music itself), which points to every user who has a copy of the music wanted, making the process faster. Users can also get the full album rather than individual tracks.

In downloading any software from the web, it’s worth making sure that it doesn’t come bundled with ‘adware’ or ‘spyware’, which can track your online movements, direct you to websites that you don’t want to visit, overwhelm you with advertising and generally slow down or mess up your computer. None of the above websites bundle adware or spyware with their programmes.

Even without ‘spyware’ on your system, everything you do online is traceable. But with Peer Guardian (http://phoenixlabs. org/pg2) and similar free software, you can block your online movements from prying eyes – including, if you were so motivated, those of the record companies and their lawyers.

Lawful free music

Organisations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (www.eff.org/share) and the Digital Rights Network (www.drn .okfn.org) are trying to get the legal system to recognise that new constructive solutions to copyright infringement are the way forward. The Creative Commons licence system (see page 28), which allows for more flexible control of music and other rights, is one such initiative.

Plenty of artists are making money from the internet without feeling the need to sue their fans. These include big names such as David Bowie, Alanis Morissette and Public Enemy. Some, most notably the Grateful Dead, have long been happy to see their fans freely trading live recordings, knowing they would otherwise be paying over the odds to bootleggers. This sort of two-way relationship is usually rewarded with the sort of fan loyalty most bands can only dream of.

The BBC has also been making its radio output available online and has started streaming a few TV shows and making some radio programmes available as podcasts – fully downloadable as MP3 files. An increasing number of other organisations are doing likewise.

More-or-less lawful, almost-free music

Because copyright controls are different there, a huge range of music can be downloaded on demand from Russian sites for tiny sums of money – generally just a few pence per track. See www.mp3search.ru and www.allofmp3.com for a couple of reliable services. The legal situation is unclear on using these sites from outside Russia, but no one has been sued for doing so.

Lawful pay services

Apple’s iTunes music store (download the player from www.apple.com/uk/itunes/download) initially lead the way online for the reluctant music industry and proved that people would pay to download music if they had the option to do so. Once downloaded and written to a blank CD, music bought in this way can be copied repeatedly.

Napster, born again as a legal supplier (www.napster.com) offers a subscription service, as do the high-street giants, HMV and Virgin, who recently entered the online market. Music from these, and other, sources can be recorded digitally when played with the right software. Audacity (http://audacity.sourceforge.net), for example, is good and free.

Red Pepper does not advocate unlawful file sharing or breach of copyright. Check out the legal situation where you live.

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