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Thursday, September 21, 2006
One-time music industry nemesis matures into copyright guardian

The force behind one-time music industry nemesis Napster has changed his tune by becoming a guardian of copyrighted songs.

Napster founder Shawn Fanning helped to create SNOCAP, a San Francisco company that uses digital "fingerprinting" of music and an extensive directory of songs to thwart online sales or swapping of copyrighted works.

Globally popular social networking website MySpace recently teamed with SNOCAP to enable musician members to sell their songs on MySpace pages.

Shortly after the announcement, Canadian alternate-rock band Barenaked Ladies made its new "Barenaked Ladies Are Me" CD available for digital download on MySpace for 89 cents a song.

"The landscape has changed for the two biggest constituents of the music industry, the fans and the artists," SNOCAP chief executive Rusty Rueff told AFP.

"What Napster did was bring us into the digital music age. Napster opened the funnel and gave us the chance to touch the music universe. Not in a legitimate way that it should have."

Fanning started Napster in 1999 as a renegade "peer-to-peer" file swapping service that had as many as 70 million members gorging on free online music downloads before the courts pulled the plug in 2001 for copyright violations.

Napster's name was bought and the service reincarnated as a financially-struggling shadow of its phenomenally popular former self, complete with ads and digital music for sale.

Fanning joined with Jordan Mendelson and Ron Conway to establish SNOCAP in 2003.

"When Shawn created Napster, he didn't create it to show the world you could rip off music," Rueff said. "He did it to show off a particular piece of technology."

"It was like plugging in the electricity for the first time and seeing where the electricity came from. When that didn't fit in the copyright laws, Shawn was smart enough to go upstream a bit and work with copyrights holders."

SNOCAP technology matches online music with the owner of its copyright and checks to make sure someone selling it owns it, Rueff said.

The social networking rage led by websites such as MySpace and FaceBook have transformed the peer-to-peer sharing template cut by Napster, Rueff maintained.

"Shawn was clearly one of the guys who kicked the bee hive around how to use peer-to-peer technology," said Rueff. "Others have built it into what social networking is today."

"Our evolution, ironic in some way, is to convert the illegal system and apply it to the new peer-to-peer business model which is social networking."

MySpace lets musicians interact online with fans, get quick feedback for new music, promote live shows, and sell songs.

"We are in a very unique time," Rueff said. "You have not only the chance to discover all this music, but to connect with the artists themselves."

The "next iteration" would likely be deepening the connection between people and content creators, said Rueff.

It was also feasible to sell music in increasingly popular virtual worlds where people live fantasy lives through animated characters referred to as "avatars," according to SNOCAP.

MySpace music download formatting permits sharing by customers, resulting in an honor system that relies on people to respect artists enough not to give music to the masses via old-time Napster-style peer-to-peer networks.

"We are not policemen," Rueff said.

"I think when you buy something from the creator; it is a different purchase obligation from when Wal-Mart sold it to me. I think people care more."

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