Pirates of the Web: At World's End 

Thieving scalawags of the cyberseas, meet your copyright-policing nemesis.

Gracenote vice president Jim Hollingsworth sits at a long conference table narrating a PowerPoint presentation that flashes on one wall. It's like Best Buy in here. The wall mostly consists of shelves bearing dozens of electric components. There's a sixty-inch flat-screen LCD TV, five-disc CD changers, car stereos, home entertainment hubs, and DVD players. All of which dip into some flavor of the Emeryville tech company's secret sauce, which most people use without knowing it.

When your computer automatically enters a new compact disc's name, artist, and track titles into iTunes, that's Gracenote.

When your new Lexus LS 460 displays metadata from random MP3s playing on the stereo, that's Gracenote.

And when your next Sony Ericsson Walkman phone plays "name that tune" with anything it hears, that'll be Gracenote, too.

One of the company's musicologists demonstrates the cell-phone trick. "Pick a random song from the library," he says. We select metal. Megadeth. The music starts playing from nearby computer speakers and the Walkman phone speaks: "Megadeth. 99 Ways to Die." The phone can access Gracenote's servers, which allows it to recognize sixty million different tracks, the musicologist says. The company adds thousands of new songs a day to its database of more than five million albums.

It's a killer gimmick, and Gracenote has a half-dozen other whiz-bang ideas for individual consumers in 2007. But the two-hundred-employee global company also has killer apps that will let massive corporations limit the ways consumers use music and movies. Gracenote has emerged as a key player in a fast-growing and lucrative niche that enables copyright cops to scour the Internet for illegal content and eradicate it. "It's become a new business arena in a short time period because consumers, mostly unwittingly, started to use copyrighted material," Hollingsworth says. "This is a whole new area coming up — media monitoring and content filtering. And the question is, 'What's the correct use?'"

The copyright holders need to know what people are uploading, he says: "Is it legal? Maybe, maybe not. Who owns the rights? The band, or the label? Is it being given away legally? The majority of content isn't."

For years, the recording and motion picture industries have dreamed of putting the Internet piracy genie back in the bottle. Now the techies who once proclaimed "information wants to be free" are lining up to help the big boys make people pay. And whether that's good or bad for artists and consumers depends partially on how much they think stealing is okay.

'Last to Market'

The Recording Industry Association of America has filed more than 15,000 piracy lawsuits to date, yet just last year kids pilfered five billion songs from peer-to-peer networks, a 47 percent increase from 2005. Those numbers have risen consistently despite what happened in July 2001.

That summer, a court injunction shut down Napster's main server in Silicon Valley. Within 24 hours after the company's final appeal was denied, a lone switch was thrown on the back of a computer at Napster HQ and the brains behind the biggest music swap meet on Earth went dark. Victory for the RIAA? Not.

Former Napster lawyer Christian Castle fought to legitimize the company and stay the injunction. Shutting down its servers didn't make much of a difference, he says. Peer-to-peer networks simply switched from Napster's one-hub model to a multihub model like, say, al-Qaeda. Hard to stop.

Offshore and overseas servers called "ghost ships" now do Napster's job through programs like LimeWire, eDonkey, or BitTorrent technology. Castle says the industry trade groups Recording Industry Association of America and Motion Picture Association of America continue to fight for their lives because the downloading has decimated CD sales twice over. The reluctance of RIAA members to evolve hasn't helped, he says.

"Back in 1998 I was trying to get permission from a record executive to start up a digital distribution store," Castle recalls. "He had a classic line. He said, 'Well, you know, we've decided we're going to be last to market on this one.' I have plenty of my own issues with record companies, but thousands of people have lost their jobs."

TOC Fingerprints

As industry profits waned, Gracenote grew quietly in the East Bay. In 1998, the company was still called the Compact Disc Database, or CDDB. It was run by engineers Ti Kan and Steve Scherf as an open-source, user-generated UNIX project. In 1993, Berkeley resident Kan had grown tired of hearing people talk about an easy way to quickly identify the contents of compact discs, and simply invented one.

His method hinged on something every CD contains: a table of contents that tells a disk player where each song begins and ends. That's it. For example, "Speak to Me," the leadoff track on the 1993 remaster of Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, runs from zero to 73 seconds. Its TOC entry reads "Track 1: 0-73." "Breathe" runs from second 75 to second 242 and shows up as "Track 2: 75-242," and so on. Kan repurposed this track data as a form of fingerprint. Entered into his custom database along with the CD name, artist, and song titles, it provided a way for a computer to quickly recognize any disc and its content. "It's really the only way to identify a CD," Hollingsworth says.

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