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AOL Pulls Plug on Napster Pirate Plug-In

By John P. Mello Jr.
Feb 17, 2005 8:00 AM PT

America Online yesterday removed from the Web site of its Winamp media player a software plug-in that is reportedly being used to make unauthorized copies of tunes from the Napster To Go subscription service.

AOL Pulls Plug on Napster Pirate Plug-In

According to AOL spokesperson Ann Burkart, the offending applet, Output Stacker, has been taken down from the Winamp site. "We are also working with Microsoft to ensure Winamp continues to provide secure playback of Windows Media content," she told TechNewsWorld.

"We are both proponents of legal consumption of digital music," she said. "No one wants a betrayal of that going on."

Not a Hack

The mischievous potential of the Winamp plug-in came to light after several Web sites, such as BoingBoing and Engadget, posted how-to's on using the program to capture online audio from a computer's sound card, a process known as "stream ripping."

"This process can be likened to the way people used to record songs from the radio onto cassette tapes, but instead of capturing the music on a tape, the file is converted into a new, unprotected digital format," explained Napster CTO William Pence in a statement.

"This program does not break the encryption of the files, which can only be recorded one at a time, making the process quite laborious," he continued. "It would take 10 hours to convert 10 hours of music in this manner."

"It is important to note," he added, "that this program is not specific to Napster; files from all legal subscription and pay-per-download services can be copied in this way."

Jobs Gloating?

It's also been reported that Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who has been critical of "rent your music" services like Napster To Go, sent top music executives a link to a blog explaining how to use Winamp to create unprotected music files from Napster.

Neither Apple nor Microsoft could be reached by TechNewsWorld for comment.

Napster To Go, which is offering a free trial of its service, provides subscribers with unlimited downloads of music for US$15 a month. Users can listen to downloads as long as their subscription remains active. If their subscription lapses, so do their listening privileges.

The digital rights management software (DRM) that allows that scheme to work is designed by Microsoft.

Analog Hole

But in the digital world, even the best of schemes oft go astray.

"Once something becomes digital, it's hard to keep it closed," observed Ted Schadler, an analyst with Forrester Research in Boston.

What Winamp users have discovered is the "analog hole" in the model for selling music online, he explained. "There's nothing that you can ever do about that," he told TechNewsWorld.

That's not to say that Microsoft hasn't tried. Reportedly it has incorporated into Windows XP and ME a technology called "Secure Audio Path" that's supposed to render audio files produced through stream ripping unbearable to listen to. Content providers have been reluctant to use it, however, because it would limit the operation of their wares to XP and ME machines.

PR Problem

"As long as we listen to music through our ears and watch video through our eyes, there's going to be a way to get around any security scheme," Rob Enderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group in San Jose, California, told TechNewsWorld. "All you have to do is convert it to analog feed.

"This is more of a PR problem than an actual limitation," he added. "This is something that folks already knew was going to be an issue. It's just a question of how many people are going to go down this particular route."

Subscription models like Napster To Go are seen by some as a more lucrative way of making money than the a la carte method advocated by Apple. The steady stream of subscription revenue is appealing to businesspeople who like predictable cash flows.

So will this latest flap have a harmful impact on the prospects for these services?

Conceptual Challenges

"This doesn't mean that the services are doomed," Paul-Jon McNealy, an analyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco, told TechNewsWorld. "The integrity of the digital rights management is still there. That hasn't been compromised."

"There are far more serious challenges for subscription than this," observed Ross Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group in Port Washington, New York.

"They have to do with a pretty dramatic shift in how consumers think about consuming music and how they think about owning music versus renting it," he told TechNewsWorld. "The biggest hurdles for subscription are conceptual."

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Women in Tech
Which Big Tech CEO that testified at the Congressional Antitrust Hearing on July 29 is the most trustworthy?
Jeff Bezos of Amazon
Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook
Sundar Pichai of Google
Tim Cook of Apple
All of them are equally trustworthy to some extent.
None of them are trustworthy whatsoever.