Tech Tips: The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Downloading Music Files

Terry Thompson, DO-IT staff

Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877. Since then, technologies that deliver music to listeners have evolved considerably but not without controversy. Audiocassettes, for example, were initially resisted fiercely by the music industry, which expressed fears that music fans would illegally record and freely share music, rather than paying for recorded products. A similar controversy has once again emerged, as the music industry wrestles with the now widespread phenomenon of music fans downloading and sharing music files over the Internet.

The controversy reached a peak in December 1999, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster™. Napster was an early giant in peer-to-peer file sharing, a technology with which users allow the contents of select files and directories on their computer's hard drives to be freely accessed by other users. Napster and similar services provide a centralized index of these shared files, where individuals can search for, locate, and download songs. The lawsuit alleged that Napster was allowing users to illegally share copyrighted materials. Napster argued that users, not Napster, were responsible for ensuring the files they were sharing were not protected by copyright laws. Naturally, many users were, in fact, violating copyright laws as they freely recorded music and made it available to others. As a result of the lawsuit, the old Napster was effectively shut down. It has re-emerged as a legal fee-based service that pays royalties to the recording industry.

The RIAA has pursued other peer-to-peer file sharing services such as Kazaa™, Grokster™, and Morpheus™, as well as individuals who are suspected of downloading high volumes of music. The RIAA recently settled with four university students, each of whom agreed to pay $12,000 to $17,000, although the trade group had originally sought up to $150,000 per song. On January 22, 2004, the RIAA filed suit against 532 individual computer users, most of whom were college students.

Since college students are among the most active groups of music downloaders, the music industry is asking postsecondary institutions to play a more active role in monitoring content their students download. Several higher education administrators have been outspoken against their playing such a role, as doing so would be a violation of students' right to privacy. There are, the administrators contend, many valid and legal uses of file-sharing technologies, and students should be able to use these technologies without being subject to invasions of privacy.

A few universities have taken creative approaches to solving the problem. For example, Penn State University and the University of Rochester have both signed contracts with Napster through which students receive free access to the now-legal service, which normally costs $9.95 a month. Other postsecondary institutions are exploring similar deals, and file-sharing companies are working to position themselves in this viable market.

Given the aggressive stance of the RIAA, downloading copyrighted music illegally has grown increasingly unwise. In addition to the legal risks, peer-to-peer technologies can pose security risks. Users must be very careful to share only those files they're intending to share. One innocent mistake could allow other users to access personal files, including those containing passwords, financial information, or other private content. Even if the user makes no mistakes, there's always the possibility that a malicious user could find security holes in the file-sharing program and gain more access than the program intends. Also, anytime a file is downloaded to a computer, there is a risk that the file could introduce viruses.

A growing number of secure, RIAA-approved options are available for downloading music files. A few of the services that have emerged include:

The new Napster costs $9.95 per month for unlimited listening. For an additional 99 cents, one song can be burned onto CD. Napster boasts of having 500,000 songs from all musical genres. Its software requires Microsoft™ Windows.

Apple™ iTunes
Users pay 99 cents per song to download music that can then be burned onto CDs or placed on an iPod™, Apple's portable music listening device that can hold up to 10,000 songs. iTunes claims to have 500,000 songs in its database. Its software comes in both Mac and Windows versions.

MusicMatch requires a one-time fee of $19.99 for unlimited listening. Songs can be downloaded and stored for 99 cents. The software includes many unique features such as Artistmatch™, a service that helps you to locate new music that most closely resembles songs or artists that you particularly like.

Rhapsody is a subscription service from Real™ (the makers of the Real Media Player). It costs $9.95 per month for unlimited listening, and currently costs 79 cents to download and store a song.

Choose services carefully. Several services are available that may seem at first to provide access to music downloads, but in fact the user fee only buys information and assistance with downloading music from other sources. An example of this type of service is

Illegal file sharing—whether it's music, movies, or software—is becoming easier for service providers to track and the industries are increasing their efforts to find and punish those who provide and download these files. Many institutions block the network ports commonly used by these services or will slow the network speed on these channels. Like many things in life, there are legitimate uses for this tool. If you use care and common sense, it can work for you as well.