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Forthcoming CDs Pirated on Web

Internet: Slick sites based overseas are offering Springsteen and Linkin Park albums free. Their location complicates copyright enforcement.

July 26, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite the music industry's intensifying battle against online piracy, a new crop of Web sites are brazenly offering entire pirated CDs for free downloading even before they are released.

In recent days, two of these sites--Listen4ever and 21st Century MP3--have offered complete versions of forthcoming albums by such top acts as Bruce Springsteen, Linkin Park, Def Leppard and R. Kelly. The sites support themselves by selling pop-up and banner advertisements for a wide variety of companies, ranging from online casinos to Dell computers.

Their operations are based at least in part overseas, complicating the task of enforcing copyrights. For example, records show that Listen4ever's Web site was registered by Australian and Chinese companies, with support for the site coming from an Internet service provider in Beijing.

Such operations are cropping up even as the music and movie industries battle to curtail online piracy on a growing number of fronts, including the courts, Congress and international copyright authorities. Their emergence illustrates how attractive online music piracy remains to entrepreneurs around the world and how difficult it can be for companies to stop their works from being copied for free.

The Internet offers a cornucopia of free music, virtually all of it made available without the copyright owners' permission. The sources range from peer-to-peer services that let users find and retrieve songs from one another's computers to more obscure, harder-to-use chat groups that let users copy music from virtual warehouses.

The new crop is distinguished by slick presentations and easy operation. Users click on album covers to call up a list of songs from that CD, then click on song names to download them. The songs are presented in common Internet file formats, although in some cases users have to download and install extra software to gain access to the music.

"It sounds wildly blatant, and I'm surprised the lawsuit hasn't been filed yet," said analyst P.J. McNealy of GartnerG2, a technology research firm. "The [recording industry] is taking these sites on one at a time, and it's just a matter of time before the bull's-eye gets painted on them."

Officials at the Recording Industry Assn. of America, a trade group for the record companies, said the RIAA has been able to shut down similar U.S.-based Web sites just by notifying the site or its Internet service provider of the apparent copyright violation. For those based overseas, it typically has relied on similar enforcement actions by its international counterpart, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

No action has yet been taken on Listen4ever or related sites, the RIAA said.

By the international federation's count, there are about 200,000 Internet sites providing free access to an estimated 100 million pirated music files. Last year, the federation and its affiliates worldwide helped shut down 28,000 sites with 5.6 million pirated files and pulled the plug on close to 1,000 computers providing directories to illicit peer-to-peer services.

Because they rely on ad revenue, the new sites need to draw large audiences to generate profit. But rather than promoting themselves overtly, they keep a low profile and rely on word of mouth to lure users before the record companies can shut them down.

"The thing is, you want to drive traffic to your site, but the bad news is you don't want to attract too much attention," McNealy said. "At the end of the day, their business model is based on the intellectual property of others. It's just a matter of time until they're toast."

Operators of Listen4ever and 21st Century MP3 could not be reached. Their owners were not identified on their sites.

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