AOL Pulls Plug on Napster Pirate Plug-In

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

According to AOL spokesperson Ann Burkart, the offending applet, OutputStacker, has been taken down from the Winamp site. “We are also working withMicrosoft to ensure Winamp continues to provide secure playback of WindowsMedia 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 severalWeb sites, such as BoingBoing and Engadget, posted how-to’s on using theprogram to capture online audio from a computer’s sound card, a processknown as “stream ripping.”

“This process can be likened to the way people used to record songs from theradio onto cassette tapes, but instead of capturing the music on a tape, thefile is converted into a new, unprotected digital format,” explained NapsterCTO William Pence in a statement.

“This program does not break the encryption of the files, which can only berecorded 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 toNapster; files from all legal subscription and pay-per-download services canbe 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 alink to a blog explaining how to use Winamp to create unprotected musicfiles 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, providessubscribers with unlimited downloads of music for US$15 a month. Users canlisten to downloads as long as their subscription remains active. If theirsubscription lapses, so do their listening privileges.

The digital rights management software (DRM) that allows that scheme to work isdesigned 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 TedSchadler, an analyst with Forrester Research in Boston.

What Winamp users have discovered is the “analog hole” in the model forselling music online, he explained. “There’s nothing that you can ever doabout that,” he told TechNewsWorld.

That’s not to say that Microsoft hasn’t tried. Reportedly it hasincorporated into Windows XP and ME a technology called “Secure Audio Path”that’s supposed to render audio files produced through stream rippingunbearable to listen to. Content providers have been reluctant to use it,however, because it would limit the operation of their wares to XP and MEmachines.

PR Problem

“As long as we listen to music through our ears and watch video through oureyes, there’s going to be a way to get around any security scheme,” RobEnderle, president and principal analyst for the Enderle Group in San Jose,California, told TechNewsWorld. “All you have to do is convert it to analogfeed.

“This is more of a PR problem than an actual limitation,” he added. “This issomething that folks already knew was going to be an issue. It’s just aquestion 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 lucrativeway of making money than the a la carte method advocated by Apple. Thesteady stream of subscription revenue is appealing to businesspeoplewho like predictable cash flows.

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

Conceptual Challenges

“This doesn’t mean that the services are doomed,” Paul-Jon McNealy, ananalyst with American Technology Research in San Francisco, toldTechNewsWorld. “The integrity of the digital rights management is stillthere. That hasn’t been compromised.”

“There are far more serious challenges for subscription than this,” observedRoss Rubin, director of industry analysis for the NPD Group in PortWashington, New York.

“They have to do with a pretty dramatic shift in how consumers think aboutconsuming music and how they think about owning music versus renting it,” hetold TechNewsWorld. “The biggest hurdles for subscription are conceptual.”

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