Piracy concerns bring down iTunes streaming site

Only days after Internet-based music streaming services that capitalize on Apple Computer's iTunes technology appeared, many of the Web sites that hosted them have removed the feature, citing concerns about piracy.

Apple iTunes Music Store is the Cupertino, Calif., company's wildly popular new online music purchase site, which debuted on April 29 and has already rung up more than two million downloads, despite the fact that the service is only available to the small number of Apple Macintosh users.

The new online service allows users with Apple Macintosh computers to download songs from a library of more than 200,000 songs for 99 cents each using a special software client.

Within days of its first public release, however, programmers outside of the company found ways to harness an iTunes client feature called Rendezvous that enables Macintosh users to share downloaded songs with other machines on a LAN or over the Internet.

Sites such as www.spymac.com, shareiTunes.com, and www.itunesdb.com began offering a music streaming service that allowed registered users to browse and search the collections of other iTunes users, then listen to those songs streamed over the Internet.

The sites relied on the work of programmers who had deciphered a protocol that iTunes uses to stream music, according to David Benesch, a software developer who lives in Williamsville, N.Y.

Benesch cracked the protocol, named DAAP, as a "weekend project," figuring out how to pull information out of a command in the protocol that is used to transmit the name of the artist and song, he said.

Benesch provided his code to Spymac.com after the Apple enthusiast site expressed an interest in using it as the basis for an online iTunes stream sharing service, he said.

But while Benesch's code enabled the iTunes users to display their song catalogs online through Spymac's music site, other developers went further, figuring out how to capture the actual music stream from iTunes, Benesch said.

Within days of the new Web based iTunes databases appearing, tools with names like "iLeech" appeared that enabled users not just to listen to songs streamed from other iTunes users music database, but to copy them. The tools turned the new services into the foundation for an online file swapping service, he said.

And while listening quality varies for songs streamed over the Internet, especially when the user hosting the song has a low bandwidth Internet connection, songs ripped from streamed MP3 or AAC (Advanced Audio Coding) files would be identical in quality to the originals, Benesch said.

MP3 and AAC are both file formats for storing compressed audio data.

In response to the growing concern about stream ripping tools, at least two iTunes streaming sites shut down on Wednesday, including Spymac's music site and iTunesdb.com.

In its statement, the managers of Spymac.com said that the decision to remove the service was necessary after efforts to thwart stream ripping by hiding the Internet Protocol addresses of shared streams were quickly sidestepped by determined programmers.

"Our team has invested significant development time into Spymac Music and the service may return -- in some form or another -- as soon as a suitable method to prevent piracy can be developed... or as soon as Apple makes it clear which direction they plan to travel regarding iTunes' built-in streaming capabilities," the Spymac statement said.

The iTunesdb.com site contained a similar statement from Rob Lockstone, the site's owner.

"I cannot, in good conscience, continue to provide a service which will facilitate the theft of copyrighted material," he said.

Lockstone denied that the decision to shut down the service was the result of pressure from Apple or the music industry, but did cite concern about the legality of the services as a contributing factor to take iTunesdb.com offline after less than a week.

"There is some discussion that simply providing a centralized location for people to come and access other people's servers violates various Digital Rights Management (or ASCAP or RIAA) provisions. Even if the person does not copy the music. I don't know. I'm not a lawyer," he said.

Benesch said he agrees with the decision by Macspy to remove the service that he helped develop.

"These services were a neat idea and they were legitimate," he said. "However, the programs have popped up that are illegal and that put the services in a bad light by not using iTunes as it was designed. I see it as a tragedy and have no doubt that next version of iTunes will see the feature changed in some way."

For his part, Benesch hopes that Apple modifies the iTunes sharing features so that users can continue to share songs legitimately, rather than just removing the song sharing functionality.

Encrypting the stream might be one way to counter the stream ripping programs, he said.

However, that move might just be another move in the game of cat-and-mouse between Apple and those who want to see iTunes used as a file swapping system, according to Benesch.

"There are some pretty creative people out there and I'm amazed with the methods they come up with to evade features. I'm not entirely convinced that even if Apple does encrypt [iTunes streams] that someone won't find a way around it," he said.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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