Not the real Slim Shady

Are the fake MP3s popping up on file-sharing networks part of the recording industry's war on piracy, or just the latest in music marketing?

Published June 10, 2002 7:30PM (EDT)

As any user of file-sharing services can attest, downloading music online is often more labor than love, thanks to files that are mistakenly labeled, cut off in midsong or of poor quality. But the altered Eminem tracks currently littering the file-sharing landscape are no accident.

Tony P., an AudioGalaxy and Grokster user who was searching for songs from "The Eminem Show" last week, found files that looked authentic, but consisted of a "20-30 second loop of the chorus that went on for three to four minutes," depending on the length of the real track. Other modified files alternated 10-second periods of music and silence.

"About half" of the songs Tony P. downloaded were misleadingly labeled, and he added that "it was hard to find legit tracks [because] the fake tracks were labeled in the same way as the real ones ... with additions to the titles like '(Dirty Version)' or '(Real, Full song).'" The use of this meta-tactic in particular made it impossible to distinguish real songs from "spoofed" ones.

Tony P. added that he had seen similarly mislabeled files only once before, when trying to preview the most recent -- and highly anticipated -- release by Eminem's Interscope label mates No Doubt.

Stacey Herron, an analyst who covers entertainment and media for Jupiter Media Metrix, notes that the creator of some or all of the files could be a suburban mom who hates the controversial Eminem, an Internet prankster "or Eminem himself." But there are also at least two good reasons for Interscope to be involved.

The first is the fight against file-sharing. As has been widely reported, Interscope advanced "The Eminem Show's" release date several times out of fear of piracy. (In spite of these attempts, the album fell victim to unprecedented CD-bootlegging, although those efforts copied actual CDs, not MP3 files.) Contacted for this article, Interscope representatives refused to comment, but a May 21 Los Angeles Times article directly stated that the label had "flooded the file-sharing networks with bogus copies of the songs." (Though no Interscope representative was quoted as acknowledging the practice.)

But the strategy could also have a marketing component. Including just enough of a hook to entice a listener, seeding the networks with variously labeled copies, referring to the labeling problems in the title of a copy that is itself modified, and even the professional-sounding quality of the looping all suggest a simple, but ingenious, tactic aimed at converting would-be pirates into CD buyers.

Interscope isn't talking, so there's little chance at the moment of settling the question. But what is clear is that file-sharing networks, whether one loves them or despises them, are increasingly becoming a platform not just for sharing intellectual property, but also for protecting, publicizing and just playing around with all kinds of content. The most surprising aspect of the Eminem MP3 mystery is not that it happened, but that more such peer-to-peer pranksterism isn't happening.

Altering files to confound file-sharers is already a time-honored tradition. As early as July 2000, the now-defunct predicted the intentional use of misleading file names, as a venue for pranks, or as a tool allowing mediocre bands to gain a measure of parasitic celebrity by misrepresenting themselves as more popular groups. A Columbus, Ohio, music label called Evolution Controlled Creations (EEC) did just that, according to Matthew Haughey, a Web designer and author whose community weblog MetaFilter is a hotbed for discussion of Web sites and Internet issues.

Haughey says EEC "set out to mess with people by naming their song files as if they were unreleased Nirvana tracks, in order to trick people into playing their music." The practice was dubbed "Napster-bombing," a reference to the pioneering file-swapping network, which filed for bankruptcy in early June.

Also in the summer of 2000, the Canadian band Barenaked Ladies released a number of tracks that masqueraded as legitimate versions, but contained a short sample of the titular song and a message from a band member, such as singer Steven Page saying, "Although you thought you were downloading our new single, what you actually were downloading is an advertisement for our new album."

Since 2000, however, such efforts have either declined in number or have simply been less public. Eric Garland, CEO of peer-to-peer (P2P) measuring service BigChampagne, is convinced it's the latter, insisting "there are companies that have made a business out of creating these files." One such company, MediaDefender (whose Web site claims to be in "stealth mode" and who did not return repeated requests for comments), also searches peer-to-peer networks for clients' songs, then downloads multiple copies from a given user at a glacial pace, rendering him or her unreachable.

Given these precedents for spoofing and the extraordinary measures record labels undertake to prevent music piracy, it's easy to wonder why spoofing, or even more invasive tactics, aren't used more.

Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a music industry lobbying organization, approves of spoofing as both "an appropriate response to the problem of peer-to-peer piracy," and "a self-help measure that is completely lawful ... I think it would be crazy if record labels, or motion picture studios or any other owners of content didn't take advantage of those kinds of measures."

After spending countless millions on costly lawsuits and useless technologies such as a recent CD innovation that reportedly caused serious damage to consumers' computers (and was ignominiously defeated by a felt-tip pen), it seems that a simple and relatively inexpensive measure, which Herron says requires no more than "an intern in a room," might be worth serious consideration on the part of the recording industry.

But BigChampagne's Garland thinks successful spoofing only has a short window of opportunity, one that closes after a CD's widespread release. "The conventional wisdom is the less material you're competing with, the easier it is to find yourself at the front of the queue. Get out there first and do what you can to see that your preferred files replicate and populate. Once everybody's got a CD that they rip to their shared folder, it becomes exponentially more challenging to figure into the mix."

To have a substantial impact on P2P networks like that currently witnessed with "The Eminem Show," Garland thinks a great deal of effort must have been expended. "Think about trying to salt a great freshwater lake with an eyedropper -- to make a difference, you would need a whole lot of eyedroppers."

As to why spoofing is not more prevalent -- or at least more public -- Herron says the record labels largely "are A) not smart enough to do it, or B) they're simply scared -- they don't want to make consumers more upset than they already are. Right now, I think everyone's trying to play it safe to see how lawsuits come out, what the legalities of digital music are and what kind of rules are laid down."

Those legalities have been the subject of intense debate for years, including an October 2001 uproar when the RIAA proposed amending a broad anti-terrorism bill with provisions aimed at protecting content. Many Internet users speculated that the RIAA's goal was to develop more proactive anti-piracy measures. Though eventually abandoned, the bill's language -- in some users' eyes -- would have allowed copyright owners to access and potentially harm consumers' computers, "provided that the use of the work that the owner is intending to impede or prevent is an infringing use."

MetaFilter's Haughey says "record companies would love it if people were frightened of file-sharing networks and never touched them again. I'm surprised there hasn't already been a true virus released by a record company, but I also think the MP3 format prevents such shenanigans from ever happening."

RIAA president Sherman scoffs at these accusations, explaining that "It's very clear you can't just go hacking into people's systems, you can't plant viruses, you can't delete the files off their computers, and nobody was ever suggesting such a thing." The bill originally proposed, he continues, "was really designed [to defend against] computer hackers," and the amendment was intended "to preserve the rights of content owners to do these sorts of spoofing activities."

The spoofs could also work to multiple purposes. By "planting that insistent hook in our brains," says Garland of BigChampage, spoofing has the potential to become a marketing opportunity. But in order to do so, files must be "a promotional vehicle [like the Barenaked Ladies efforts] rather than a sort of ground war where you're lobbing things back and forth hoping to frustrate and annoy and dissuade. What you want to do is excite the consumer and titillate and create demand." He notes, however, that the "danger of try-before-you-buy" is that if a user doesn't like a previewed track, "then the industry and that record would have benefited from [that user's] ignorance."

Jupiter Media Metrix's Herron also doubts the labels' motives. "If what you're ultimately trying to do is market the new Eminem CD [using mislabeled tracks] then I'll give some credit where credit is due. But if what you're trying to do is force people to go purchase the CD, I don't really think that's the best way to go about it. If anything, the more press that gets written about that type of practice, the more people will go to peer-to-peer file-sharing destinations."

Confirming Herron's suspicions, Sherman quickly dismisses any questions about the labels' goals, saying, "I can assure you that these kinds of measures are undertaken as an anti-piracy measure, not as a marketing measure. If as a byproduct it interests somebody, so much the better, but that is not the motivation."

Instead of focusing so intently on lawsuits and measures like spoofing, Herron thinks labels would be better off developing and improving their own peer-to-peer networks, so that they can provide users with robust services and guaranteed downloads, which as the current dilemma illustrates, free networks can not.

Somewhat surprisingly, Sherman agrees, saying that the downloading difficulties caused by spoofing "just prove that you get what you pay for," and improving pay services could be a solution. Difficulties arise, according to Sherman, due to "anti-trust restrictions that limit the ability of major record companies to join together," referring to Department of Justice investigations of subscription file-sharing services Pressplay and MusicNet. (The former is backed by Sony and Vivendi Universal, the latter by AOL Time Warner, EMI Group and Bertelsmann.)

In the end, it matters little who placed the altered files on the file-sharing networks. Whether initiated by bands, record companies, third parties or just mischievous teenagers, the net effect is the same: Trusting other users is file-sharing's Achilles' heel, and it has been exposed. What remains to be seen is whether record labels will continue to merely attack it, or will learn to exploit it.

By Dan Levine

Dan Levine is a freelance writer living in New York, N.Y. His work has appeared in The New York Observer,, Maxim and The Modern Humorist.

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