Major record labels have launched an aggressive new guerrilla assault on the underground music networks, flooding online swapping services with bogus copies of popular songs.
The online music sites know they're under attack. Darrell Smith, chief technical officer of StreamCast Networks, parent of the popular file-swapping service Morpheus, said he first noticed the practice about a year ago, but chalked it up to ``rogue teenage hackers just being obnoxious.
``It's more prevalent in the last three months,'' he said. ``It's gotten real, real, real severe.''
Sources at three major labels admit they're deluging popular services like Morpheus, Kazaa and Grokster with thousands of decoy music files that look identical to a sought-after song, but are filled with long minutes of silence -- or 30-second loops of a song's chorus.
By making stealing more of a hassle, they hope to persuade more people to shell out for a CD at the local record store.
The practice is called ``spoofing'' and it is widespread. Over the last three months, virtually any song destined for the Billboard pop music charts has been spoofed, the sources say.
``Several of the labels are doing it with every release,'' said one record label executive speaking on condition of anonymity. ``We're not using any of this with any kind of promotion or marketing in mind. We're doing this simply because we believe people are stealing our stuff and we want to stymie the stealing.''
This ``fight theft with deception'' initiative is a tacit acknowledgment by the industry that legal victories are not enough to stop the wildfire popularity of online music swapping, which researcher Ipsos-Reid estimates now attracts 40 million users in the United States alone.
Taken together with the growth in sales of recordable compact discs and burners, it is fueling an epidemic of piracy that the labels blame for a 16 percent drop in global music sales.
``From the outset, it's been very clear that one of the only ways -- as a practical matter -- to deal with the peer-to-peer problem is by means of technological measures,'' said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America, the leading trade group for the labels. ``There are certainly mechanisms that are available -- that are completely lawful, such as spoofing.''
Smith, from StreamCast, said the network is being flooded with bogus files -- all coming from sources that can marshal massive amounts of bandwidth and banks of computers occupying a narrow range of Internet addresses. It's clearly intended to disrupt the file-sharing network, he said.
No one expects spoofing to deter hard-core pirates, who download entire CDs or feature films from online sources that require sophisticated knowledge of file-transfer protocols or Internet Relay Chat trigger commands.
``This is putting your finger in the dike,'' said Bruce Forest, a noted Internet piracy expert. ``This is going to slow down piracy a bit. It isn't going to stop it.''
But the labels hope to discourage mainstream users from turning to popular file-swapping services rather than the local record store for their copy of Sheryl Crow's ``Soak Up the Sun.''
``Things got out of balance. It's too easy to find pirated music,'' said Josh Bernoff, an analyst for Forrester Research in Cambridge, Mass. ``Now, they're moving the balance back in the other direction.''
Label sources describe spoofing as only the first in a series of electronic countermeasures intended to frustrate the 18.7 million consumers who researcher comScore Media Metrix estimates turned to the digital underground last month to download bootleg copies of music, films, games and software.
Some label execs say they're evaluating other technologies that would scramble search queries or add file attachments to make a compressed music file that would typically download in less than a minute ``move like molasses.''
Those countermeasures could cross ``into a gray area as far as legality,'' admits another record executive who asked not to be named. He said frustrated record label employees could resort to such measures as propagating viruses, rationalizing `` `Hey, if you don't mind stealing my career and livelihood, I'm sure you don't mind if I destroy your hard drive.' ''
Paving the way for more aggressive industry counterattacks, Beverly Hills congressman Howard Berman is preparing a bill that would let copyright owners, such as record labels or movie studios, launch high-tech attacks against file-swapping networks where their wares are traded.
Berman said that copyright owners need new legal protections to combat online piracy. Some of the labels' and studios' high-tech tricks for stopping online file traders might be illegal under current anti-hacking laws.
It's impossible to know whether these electronic countermeasures exist now or whether the labels are engaging in a bit of bravado, hoping to scare away would-be file-swappers.
The leading vendors specializing in piracy detection -- Overpeer, Vidius, NetPD, Media Defender and MediaForce -- fall mute when it comes to revealing the names of their media clients or the nature of their work.
In the spy-vs.-spy world that has become online piracy, online swapping sites are fighting back. The next version of Morpheus' software, due out in three months, will contain its own countermeasures in an attempt to foil the spoofers, StreamCast Network's Smith said.
It will incorporate a rating mechanism that allows users to identify fake files and a method of certifying users as legitimate users.
``Without any checks and balances in place the individuals who are spoofing can create all types of havoc on files,'' said Smith.
Precisely what the labels had in mind.