James Hagengruber REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK
Once in a great while this paper will quote an anonymous source. Sometimes it happens if we share the story of a sexual assault victim, or the words from a government whistleblower.
It happens when reporters need to protect their sources, especially those who could be punished because of what they say.
Smalltime pirates Meet "Captain Kidd Rock," a senior at Winnett High School and a swashbuckling music pirate. I spoke with him and a couple of other students a few months ago on the topic of music file sharing. Lawsuits were beginning to be filed by the recording industry against a few of the biggest file sharers, but the people I spoke to were smalltime pirates. They gave their names without hesitation. They didn't have much to worry about, or so they thought.
That all changed with 261 lawsuits filed against music file sharers this week. None of the lawsuits were filed in Montana, according to U.S. District Court clerks in Great Falls, Billings, Missoula, Helena and Butte. Still, naming the local pirates would be stupid. It would be akin to a reporter writing about home brewers the day after Prohibition took effect.
Captain Kidd Rock estimated that a quarter of his 30-some schoolmates download music from the Internet. He has downloaded about 850 songs. Radio reception is limited in his part of the state and driving to the record store can take an hour and a half, he said. The Internet is a great way for him to hear the latest songs.
"I like music," he said.
The only problem, Captain Kidd said, is it takes an hour to download a single song. This ties up his parents' phone line.
Colleges are home to many of the nation's music-thief sleeper cells. Online music sharing is the new illicit dorm activity. It's also a major headache to Rich Hurlocker, Rocky Mountain College's academic computing support manager. Hurlocker's name is being printed here because he is more likely to get an award than a subpoena from the record industry.
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Stealing is stealing "My personal opinion is it's theft," Hurlocker said in a May interview. "You are acquiring intellectual property you are not entitled to have."
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Last year, about 96 percent of the Internet traffic from RMC's three dorms was MP3 music files, Hurlocker said. Students kept their computers on all the time, sucking in music through a T1 Internet connection from other computers around the world.
"It got to the point where MP3 downloading was using so much of our bandwidth we couldn't perform legitimate tasks," Hurlocker said. "The pipe was totally choked."
It takes a lot of bytes to store a song from Coldplay, Radiohead or Liz Phair. Hurlocker likens the online sharing of the huge files to trying to suck an elephant through a soda straw. "You need to chop the elephant into tiny pieces," he said. When hundreds of students are trying to suck up elephant-sized files, the pipeline gets clogged. When the system is overloaded, the files flow like cold molasses.
Hurlocker now blocks MP3 sharing during daytime hours. This preserves the system for academic uses. Late at night, 90 percent of the Net is given back to the dorms and the files fly. Students are not allowed to act as a distributor of files, he said.
Students engaged in this illegal activity often see themselves less as a pirate than Robin Hood. A senior psychology major I'll call Captain Vinyl Beard recently deleted 350 music files from his computer. He was afraid of being the target of a lawsuit. He told me his name but was a bit anxious. "Is this going to get me arrested?" he said.
Although rampant file sharing occurs in even the biggest of cities, Captain Vinyl Beard said the Internet is a vital outlet for new music in places like Billings, where the commercial stations are either totally retro or top 40. Yellowstone Public Radio plays some modern pop and rock late at night, but that's about it, he said.
"A lot of people here have thousands and thousands of files because that's the only way we get to hear what's out there," he said.
Once in a great while, Captain Vinyl Beard actually goes to a store and pays cash for a compact disc from an artist he discovered on the Net. Usually it's from the used music section at a pawn shop, he said.
Captain Vinyl Beard knows he's a rogue in the eyes of the record industry, but he has no intention of stopping. He loves music. "By copyright laws and contracts, yeah, I guess it is illegal," he said. "But I don't think it's wrong. Everybody does it."