"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 10 July 2000. Updated every WEEKDAY.




As the charged court-room tango between opposites-attract adversaries Napster and the RIAA fast approaches, an important point has been mostly lost amongst the swelling chorus of embarrassing email revelations, Clintonian hair-splitting, and Dream Team recruiting coups . Napster, alleged destroyer of the record industry, criminal enabler of ten million sonic scofflaws, is, in fact, a pretty lousy piracy tool.

Oh, we had high hopes back in December when we first heard about the application via a press release the RIAA issued upon filing its lawsuit against the company. "Napster is similar to a giant online pirate bazaar," the release read. "It's like a burglar's tool," exclaimed Ron Stone of Gold Mountain Management in a document that accompanied the release. "My music is like my home," chimed in Creed lead singer Scott Stapp, and we could almost hear his voice, raspy and defiant, but melodic too, as his sense of, uh, melodic defiance grew even stronger. "Napster is sneaking in the back door and robbing me blind."

"Really?" we wondered. From the comfortable, cowardly anonymity of our computers, we could somehow waltz into any rock star home and take whatever we wanted? And the only potential danger was an impromptu kitchen jam session with a vaguely Christian power-balladeer? Had we finally found a way to make a buck off the Internet? Imagine our disappointment when we discovered that, despite Stapp's compelling testimony, Napster was just a simple file exchange program.



In other words, without a convenient way to sell all the songs Napster allows you to steal, what good is it? If you think the road to riches involves sharing "Got The Life" remixes with 45-year-old Korn fans, then yes, Napster is an effective burglar's tool. But if you prefer good old-fashioned piracy, where you sell counterfeit goods for a nice black-market profit, there are much better giant online pirate bazaars than Napster.

As far as we know, Scott Stapp has never officially condemned online auction sites, and yet if he ever decides to stop guarding his back door against Napster barbarians and visit eBay or Yahoo! Auctions, he'll discover a variety of unauthorized Creed merchandise for sale, including live bootlegs, CD-R copies of official Creed releases, and compilations like ROCK HITS 2000!, a $4.50 mix CD that features two Creed hits and 15 additional tracks from other popular artists. $4.50 per CD isn't much, of course, but compared to the free exchanges that occur on Napster, it's a fortune. And so what we can't understand is why eBay hasn't hired Napster's PR team. Because, sure, eBay's done all right for itself over the last few years, but imagine how high its stock price might climb if it were able to capitalize on the same destroyers-of-the-record-industry hype that has made Napster such a media darling.

And remember, while Napster still lacks a business plan, eBay makes at least 25 cents to $2 every time someone lists an auction, and at least 5% of any winning bid. That means that for every $10 "mix CD" sold on eBay, eBay makes a dollar. The volume is probably pretty good too, as thousands of illegal "imports," "rare promo-only test pressings," "DJ mixes," "out-of-print rarities," and live bootlegs are available at any one time. Of course, eBay's official policy is to shut down auctions where a copyright infringement is suspected, but with millions of auctions in progress every day, a few, or actually, a few thousand, can't help but slip through the cracks, can they?



To elude detection, some sellers use hard-to-crack codes like "B.O.O.T.L.E.G.S.!!!" Others employ disclaimers that apparently satisfy eBay's overworked copyright infringement police. "What you're bidding on are two blank double-cd Jewel Cases," advises one crafty seller. "Buy a bag of M&M candy and get the Eminem rare collections," pitches another. In the brazen, wide-open frontier of online auctions, such techniques function more as salesmanship than legal maneuvering. On a practical level, there's no need for such discretion. Want a collection of 241 Beatles songs in MP3 format on a single CD for $10? It's being openly advertised. Another eBay entrepreneur employs the sort of dedicated customer service that elevates eBay from marketplace to genuine community. "2Pac, Eminem, Jay Z, 'N Sync, TLC," her advertisement reads. "Please email me the songs you would like and I'll make the CD. You can choose up to 15 songs!!" An Eminem fan sets the standard, however. "All the Eminem you Need Forever - $20," he promises. "I will even give you a password to access my 3 gig online storage to update your collection for the rest of your life as I am always getting new songs."

Of course, the made-to-order mix CDs and lifetime subscriptions are just the most obvious examples of copyright infringement that occur on eBay. But that doesn't mean they're the only ones. Consider, for example, an auction featuring Creed's "Human Clay," which the seller describes as a "barely used CD in mint condition!" Yes, "Human Clay" is an official Creed release. But while it's possible the barely used CD in question is a legal copy, it's a possible that it's just a barely used CD-R. In any case, how might eBay determine if such an auction is illegal short of bidding on the item itself? And given that it stands to make a buck or so on a successful transaction, why would it want to? Last April, the Software & Information Industry Association conducted a survey that found that 91% of computer software that's sold online is an illegal copy. If eBay were truly determined to stop copyright infringement, wouldn't it consider banning computer software auctions altogether, since only 9% of them appear to be legitimate?



Instead, eBay actually assists pirates. How? By introducing an element of credibility into the domain of online music exchange. Anyone who's downloaded more than a few dozen songs via Napster is familiar with the perils of the process: Because it's so easy to deliberately mislabel MP3 files, you always run the risk of enduring some obscure folk-rocker's culture jamming just because you want to listen to the latest Britney Spears single. Unfortunately, Napster has yet to implement any filter that helps ensure that you're getting what you think you're getting. On the hand, eBay uses a well-regarded feedback system that lets community members document the reliability of buyers and sellers. So if you decide to start peddling, say, the Eminem "Fucking Crazy" bootleg, and you want to assure potential customers that you are indeed a credible, trustworthy merchant, just get some friends to flesh out your Feedback Profile. Have them make comments like "honest seller," "good to do business with," and "supa dupa fast shipments," and you'll be moving units in no time. But hurry! Because while Ron Stone, Scott Stapp, and the RIAA may not know a giant online pirate bazaar when they see one, a burglar's tool as effective as eBay can't possibly go unnoticed forever.

courtesy of St. Huck
picturesTerry Colon

St. Huck