Downloadable Albums on Tap for 1999

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Billy Idol released two songs online today that anyone can download for free -- and as if that weren't enough bad news, a coalition was formed today to protect the rights of musicians and the music industry from Net pirates. The Secure Digital Music Initiative, the group of consumer electronics, technology and record companies whose existence was revealed at a press conference in New York on Tuesday, announced it plans to create yet another new standard for the secure online distribution of music, within a year. "Secure" of course, means no more pirated stuff, kids.

They wish. Stung by the seismic popularity of a standard known as MP3, the recording industry has been fighting back. But they're hardly in time. Scores of pirate MP3 sites have sprung up online where anyone can download near-CD quality music for free. MP3s are so popular that Diamond Multimedia, a consumer electronics company popular for its video cards, began selling a $199 Walkman-like player, the Rio, that plays the Net tunes. The Recording Industry Association of America filed a lawsuit against the company, attempting to immediately prevent it from selling the device, but a judge was unimpressed: Until the case can be heard in court, Diamond is free to sell it. Of course, all the publicity attendant to the little Rio probably harmed Diamond more than the lawsuit. The company said yesterday that it had sold out of the Rio through Christmas, disappointing legions of would-be buyers, and was ramping up to produce 10,000 of them a week.