After millions download myTunes, graduate student creator moves on
For Bill Zeller GS, the best things in life are free.
Zeller made a splash on the Internet when, 10 days after the release of the Windows-compatible version of Apple's music player iTunes in October 2003, he released myTunes, a program that runs alongside older versions of iTunes and allows users to download music from other users' libraries over a local network.
Since then, myTunes has been downloaded over 3.5 million times, Zeller said.
"One thing that surprised me was the strong emotional response I got from people about my program," he said. "The popularity or notoriety that the program has gotten is a result of people loving their music so much. They like feeling they own their own music."
Though myTunes has legitimate uses, such as sharing songs under Creative Commons or similarly open licenses, it also can be used to illegally download music files in violation of copyright licenses, especially those owned by major record labels.
To date, Zeller has not been contacted by Apple or the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). "It was actually strange because they never contacted me. They sent a letter to 40 colleges that specifically mentioned myTunes," he said. "They also mentioned myTunes in a congressional report."
Apple disabled myTunes in April 2004 when it released version 4.5 of iTunes.
Then Zeller came up with myTunes Redux, which once again sidestepped iTunes sharing restrictions. Apple later released version 7 of iTunes last fall and stopped myTunes once and for all.
Computer science professor Ed Felten — who once found himself in a legal tussle with the RIAA over his research on digital copyrights — was interested in the legal implications of the existence of myTunes.
"It has legitimate uses, for instance to move songs one created from one computer to another, as well as illegitimate uses like downloading copyrighted songs," he explained. "As a sort of dual use program, it brought up questions on whether something that can be used for both legal and illegal purposes is ok."
Zeller does not plan on updating myTunes to work with the current version of iTunes.
"Right now I'm doing some work in web security. I'm not sure what my research will be about," Zeller said, then added with a laugh, "but definitely something farther away from the legal line."
Online music retailers typically have walked a fine line between allowing users enough freedom to access and transfer purchased songs, while protecting the intellectual rights of the artists and labels who produced those songs.
ITunes' music-sharing feature allows music to be streamed from one computer to another computer over a local network.
MyTunes uses this feature to instead save unencrypted music files, such as songs in mp3 format, from other computers.
Most music retailers prevent sharing through proprietary digital rights management (DRM), which includes different schemes that prevent users from transferring or otherwise using music files in ways that would break copyright laws.
Felten said he believes that DRM will ultimately be unsuccessful in preventing people from moving music whenever they want and noted that its current use is not just to protect the music itself.
"There have been companies that seem to be using it to try to prevent people from using other companies' products," he said. "One example is Apple locking in its customers to using its products to play music bought from its store. There are definitely issues with doing that."
MyTunes allows people to sidestep these sharing restrictions, for which it has been criticized by some iTunes users.
But Zeller defended the legality of his myTunes software immediately following its release, writing in response to one forum-goer, "I do not condone any illegal action used with my software, let alone copyright infringement (not 'stealing', as it's been inappropriately called)."
"Am I at fault? I've broken no laws, I've committed no crime. If you want to copy books and sell them, is Xerox at fault? If you bash someone over the head with a Powerbook, is Apple responsible?" he wrote in the forum.
Zeller said the difficulty of filesharing could be lessened if online music services ensure that each user can transfer and listen to music between his or her personal devices, with no renewal fees.
As for the future of online music, "I don't have all the answers to these issues. I wish I did," Zeller said, laughing. "I'd be a millionaire."
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