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Music Pirates Delivering Loot Via AOL Public Sites

July 31, 2002|JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Some online music pirates are delivering their musical loot with the help of free services from America Online, a subsidiary of AOL Time Warner Inc. and a sister company of one of the world's largest record labels.

Internet traffic records show that at least two sites offering pirated music--21century-MP3.com and SimpleMP3s.com--are surreptitiously using AOL computers and transmission services to distribute many of the free songs they offer. Unless users of the sites have special software to trace the source of their downloads, they have no idea that the songs are coming from AOL.

Some of the pirated song files are disguised as pictures and stored at AOL's public photo sites. Others are repackaged and cached on powerful computers that AOL, the world's largest provider of Internet access, makes available as an electronic warehouse on the Net.

Record industry officials say AOL is just one of many companies whose public offerings are hijacked by music pirates. Neither the Recording Industry Assn. of America nor Warner Music Group, AOL's corporate sibling, criticize AOL, which they say has been just as responsive as any company that provides Web sites to the public.

Still, the pirates' resourcefulness is reflected in their ability to foist a major part of their costs onto companies such as AOL. They've become a headache not just for copyright owners but also for Internet-access providers and Web-site companies that unwittingly store and transmit files on their behalf.

The record companies have waged an escalating legal war against online pirates, winning several key rulings in U.S. courts. The legal environment in the United States is so unfavorable to companies trying to build businesses around piracy that many entrepreneurs have set up shop in other countries, said Matt Oppenheim, senior vice president of business and legal affairs at the RIAA.

But even those who aren't based in the U.S. take advantage of the facilities here. To stretch the dollars they collect for inundating users with advertising, they look for ways to slash costs by storing songs on other people's computers and transmitting them from there.

Bruce Forest, an independent technology consultant and piracy expert, said online pirates have been hijacking corporate computer networks and Internet connections for years. "Let's say you've got 50 gigabytes [of music] to store--that's not that hard to find," he said.

21century-MP3 and Simple- MP3s, which provide access to several dozen pirated CDs, have tapped into a few of the free Web services that AOL offers the general public. AOL provides at least three areas where people can store and share files, according to spokesman Nicholas Graham: Web pages, message groups and FTP sites, which essentially are electronic lockers on the Web.

21century-MP3 obscures the nature of the booty stored on AOL by repackaging it in a generic format for compressed files. SimpleMP3s goes one step further, using a camouflaging program to hide the songs behind pictures or graphics.

For example, a Whitney Houston song was concealed behind a digital picture of a mountain range, and a song by rock band Filter was hidden behind an animated butterfly. These changes in format make the songs more difficult to detect in an automated scan for illicit music files, Forest said.

Neither company could be reached for comment. According to the registration records for their Web sites, 21century appears to be a Portuguese company that uses an Ontario, Canada, company for some of its Internet access, and SimpleMP3s appears to be based in British Columbia.

"We at AOL take copyright issues very seriously on the service, and act to immediately and effectively remove pirated content when we're made aware of it," Graham said. "We do everything we can to ensure that content on the AOL service is appropriate and legal when we're made aware of [problems] by members or copyright owners."

In fact, AOL has taken down some of SimpleMP3s' material--for example, copies of songs from Moby's most recent CD.

What often happens, though, is that the pirates quickly set up new sites on AOL to replace the ones knocked offline. Enforcement becomes a cat-and-mouse game, with the Internet providing a vast playing field.

AOL limits the amount of material that can be stored on its free services, Graham said, hoping to make the sites "inappropriate and inhospitable to a lot of pirated content." But it still has to provide enough space to let legitimate users do the things they want to do, such as store family photos.

When the RIAA discovers a pirate site, one of the first things it typically does is contact the company's Internet provider and ask it to stop the infringements. The provider usually complies, Oppenheim said, adding that AOL has been no more of a source of piracy than any other company offering public storage space on the Web.

But the RIAA also wants such companies to police themselves rather than simply wait for complaints to roll in.

"If they've got a business based on hosting content, they have an obligation to have some sense of what's going on, what they're making their money off of," Oppenheim said. "They should have some sense of what it is they're hosting."

Graham of AOL responded, "We take all appropriate and lawful action in terms of protecting our members' privacy and copyright holders' [property]. It's a careful and practical balance."

AOL tries to encourage its members to report copyright violations as a primary tool for keeping the service honest, Graham said. "They understand what illicit service is when they see it and they report it to us."

Forest said pirate businesses may have to move their inventory and update their sites continually, "but if you're making your money in advertising, yeah, it's worth it."

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