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Napster challenges EMusic monitoring plan

It's an invasion of privacy - Napster. No it's not - EMusic

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Napster yesterday slammed music company EMusic's attempts to track downloads made across the MP3 sharing service as a violation of its users' privacy.

EMusic plans to monitor Napster's service to locate users sharing songs to which it owns the copyright. The digital music company said this week it had begun embedding a watermark in the tracks it offers for sale and would use that mark to pinpoint users trading its songs on Napster.

If it finds any, it will email the Napster user posting the tracks and ask them to stop. The user has 24 hours to do so - after that time, EMusic will ask Napster to boot them off the service.

Some chance, if Napster reaction to EMusic's plan is anything to go by. Napster CEO Hank Barry said his company will be "reviewing EMusic's interaction with the Napster system", ostensibly to ensure it doesn't infringe Napster's own privacy policy.

Responding to Barry's statement, EMusic CEO Gene Hoffmann denied his system is a threat to Napster users' privacy. "We're not maintaining information about any consumer," he said.

EMusic's argument is that its software essentially does only what any Napster user does: it looks at what tracks are available at a given time and downloads any it finds interesting. It, presumably, then checks for the watermark and uses Napster's own technology to contact the sharer.

EMusic's software has to maintain some record of which users it believes are infringing its copyrights. How else is it to check whether user x has obeyed its demand to cease sharing its tracks? How else is it to then ask Napster to yank the account of user x?

But since the identity of x is known only by EMusic, Napster and x themselves, that's hardly a privacy infringement. Napster could argue that EMusic has no right to know what x is up to, but the company has as much right as user y who wants to see if x has anything groovy to download.

It isn't like Intel's inclusion of an ID number in Pentium CPUs, which could be used to track a user's travels through cyberspace. EMusic simply tracks a song's progress through the Net.

Napster also claimed that EMusic's watermarking system was inconsistent with the US Digital Millennium Copyright Act, but it's hard to see how. EMusic has every right, surely, to mark tracks it offers for download in anyway it sees fit, and there's no reason why it shouldn't use that mark.

In any case, EMusic isn't the only one monitoring Napster use. Metallica located Napster users it alleged were infringing its copyrights using the help of a US Internet consultancy. If they can do it, anyone can, and you can bet a number of interested parties already are.

Remember Sony's claim it would attack Napster users at source? We'd be very surprised if, as an interested party, Sony isn't monitoring Napster use, even if it's only by watching filenames. Companies like Sony have the resources to create and then stamp watermarks into all their media products, watermarks that can survive conversion to MP3. That, after all, is one of the goals of the Secure Digital Music Initiative.

True, the SDMI's technology may have been beaten, but the work continues. The point is, this highly monitored environment is the arena in which the likes of Napster and its users will have to operate, like it or not. Better then to work with it and, as we suggested yesterday, create a market that works for everyone - music companies, music sharing companies and music lovers. ®

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