Downloader Dragnet

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How many stolen songs does it take to catch the eye of the music police?

Bob Barnes never dreamed that the long arm of the music industry would reach into his personal computer. Sure, the bus operator from Fresno, Calif., had used Napster to grab music files off the Internet. And when that file-swapping service was put out of business, he switched to its most popular successor, Kazaa. But he was careful not to leave a trace, transferring all his downloaded songs to separate discs. A visiting teenage grandson wasn't so careful, however, and last week Barnes, 50, was slapped with a subpoena from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). It alleged that he had posted online — for the world to steal — digital copies of songs by Savage Garden, Marvin Gaye and the Eagles. "This is like shock and awe," says Barnes. "Blitz them until they submit."

Barnes may be a pirate, but he has plenty of company. An estimated 60 million Americans, more than the number of Bush voters in 2000, are using file-sharing networks on the Internet. Until last week it seemed like a safely anonymous pursuit. But then RIAA started subpoenaing colleges and Internet-service providers (ISPs) for the names and addresses of more than 950 computer owners — some of whom, like Barnes, were trafficking in stolen music without knowing it.

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Trouble is, a lot of music downloaders don't realize that they are also distributors. On Kazaa, for example, the tunes you store in the designated download folder are automatically broadcast back to other users. Unless you turn off sharing or move the music to a different place on your hard drive, anybody can reach into your computer and take a copy (as long as you are online and running Kazaa).

How many songs do you have to have in that folder to catch the eye of the music police? A thousand? A dozen? Just one? RIAA, which is trying to put the fear of litigation into as many music pirates as it can, is playing coy. It has declined to say whom it is targeting or how many more subpoenas it plans to issue. So far, though, most of the file sharers it has gone after were dealing in hundreds of tracks, not just a few. "We're focused on the supply side," RIAA president Cary Sherman says. "If you can get at the 10% of people who are offering 90% of the files, that makes a significant dent."

Until recently, getting even that 10% was impossible. Users were hidden behind the long strings of numbers that represent Internet addresses. Only network administrators knew who had been assigned which Internet address, and they were reluctant to share. All that changed in February, when a federal judge ordered Verizon to turn over to RIAA the name of an alleged music pirate. That opened the floodgates. Last week the Federal District courthouse in Washington had to hire extra clerks just to deal with music-industry litigation.

"This is turning into a subpoena mill," says Sarah Deutsch, associate general counsel for Verizon, after receiving more than 200 requests for identities. "We're not just going to roll over and allow this kind of process." Not every ISP feels the same. Comcast, the cable-TV company that sells high-speed Internet access on the side, has announced its intention to cooperate with RIAA. So has Chicago's Loyola University. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston University, by contrast, have gone to court to protect students' identities.

The cat-and-mouse game between computer programmers and the music industry is heating up. The next generation of file-sharing software, programmers promise, will provide anonymity that not even ISPs will be able to crack. New online services with names like Earth Station 5 and W.A.S.T.E. claim to have done that already, but none are quite ready for prime time.

Happily, there's another alternative: paying for your music, using one of several legal downloading services. The most popular, Apple's 99-a-song iTunes music store, has racked up 5 million downloads in just two months and is scheduled to launch a Windows version in December. It was joined last week by, which offers some of the same songs for 79 apiece. Neither has anything like Kazaa's selection just yet — but both are guaranteed subpoena free.