Imagine walking into a music store, handing over a list of hundreds of your favorite songs, and leaving with all of them -- without paying a cent.
That's what tens of thousands of college students around the country are doing -- only they go to the Internet instead of Sam Goody. It's all possible because of Napster, a song-trading program that has the music industry in an uproar over what it calls ''a giant online pirate bazaar.''
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster's publisher, charging that the California company has provided the ultimate burglary tool for music thieves. But so far, it has stopped hardly anyone.
''Napster's great,'' says Clark Cogan, a 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. ''I haven't bought a CD since last May. I think it's terrible the record companies are trying to fight it, they're just trying to limit our rights to information and Internet access.''
Napster is a free Windows program available to anyone over the Internet, but its heaviest users are on college campuses, where students enjoy high-speed Internet access in their dorm rooms. The fast connections enable Napster to download computer-coded music files, called MP3s, in as little as 10 seconds.
Anyone running Napster over an Internet connection can enter an ''online music community'' populated at any time by thousands of other visitors. A similar program called Macster gives Apple Macintosh users entree to the network.
Each visitor makes available from five to 1,500 songs available for others to download at the click of a mouse button. Ranging from Elvis to Nine Inch Nails to the Backstreet Boys, almost all are copyrighted, and transferring them is usually illegal.
Threatened by the prospect of losing millions in revenues,
the record industry is ready to go to war.
''We are being robbed,'' said Ron Stone, president of Gold Mountain Entertainment, which represents such recording artists as Bonnie Raitt and Ziggy Marley. ''The kids are just gobbling up our product and the music business is going to deteriorate dramatically. In the long run, Napster will be the end of us.''
Adds Simon Renshaw, manager of the Dixie Chicks, in a statement on RIAA's Web site: ''If the Internet thieves are not stopped or better regulated, it not only robs current artists but might have even more serious repercussions for the next batch of artists.''
Meanwhile, many college networks are bogging down under the load of Napster traffic. Indiana University banned Napster after discovering that song traffic was using up 50 percent of its network bandwidth, and 57 other colleges nationwide have followed suit.
Mike Dieter, Loyola College's senior network engineer, said the Maryland school doesn't condone use of its network for illegal activity. But policing Napster is no easy task.
''It's difficult to place restrictions on this kind of thing,'' Dieter said. ''Most educational institutions want complete free and unrestricted access to information. How do we reconcile that kind of attitude with the need to protect the college's liability? I'm not sure what the answer is.''
Not to mention that any college that pursues violators would be rounding up hundreds, if not thousands, of its students who see Napster as a playfully daring way to build up music collections.
''There's so much of it going on, I just don't know that there's much that can be done about it,'' Dieter said. ''It's like trying to put out a 10-alarm fire with a garden hose.''
Further confounding the music industry is Napster's argument that the program has a legitimate purpose.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.