Piracy hits Apple music store

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Apple's revolutionary iTunes Music Store has logged over 2 million digital song downloads in its first 16 days, the company announced this week, and over half of them were purchased as part of complete albums, dispelling worries that the service would harm album sales. But iTunes Music Store is regarded by many of the major recording labels as a grand experiment, and one that might not continue when the service is ported over to the 99 percent of the computer-using world that isn't running Mac OS X. Further damaging the service's credibility this week are reports that people have figured out ways to illegally download music from Macs running iTunes over the Internet, using a software service that Apple built into its music player. Will this problem spiral out of control and doom any chance of Windows users getting access to iTunes and the iTunes Music Store?

The hack takes advantage of a new feature in iTunes 4, which allows OS X users to stream music within a small area like a home, to others Macs running iTunes 4. Streaming music isn't downloaded to the other Mac, and when you move the second Mac out of range, the music stops streaming. Apple CEO Steve Jobs demonstrated this feature during the April unveiling of the iTunes Music Store. In the ensuing weeks, however, enterprising users figured out how to offer their music for free streaming over the Internet, and now hacks have appeared that can not only stream the music, but download it to another PC. I tested one of these applications yesterday and successfully downloaded two MP3 songs (already in my music library) from a random Mac somewhere on the Internet.

Apple launched its music store because none of the major online music services supported the Mac and its relatively small user base. However, the iTunes Music Store is definitely off to a fast start, and the elegant way it operates should serve notice to the competition, which tried to foist subscription fees on customers. As Microsoft discovered long ago, however, software is never perfect, and the apparent speed and ease with which iTunes was compromised should be addressed by Apple's developers as quickly as possible. But there are other troubling signs for the service: According to reports last week, only two of the five major record labels that agreed to publish their songs on the service have agreed to do so when Windows users come aboard. That's because the Windows user base is so large and diverse that these companies aren't convinced Apple can keep a lid on piracy. While Apple is obviously working to counter those fears, this week's revelation about music download hacks certainly can't help. Apple's response to these issues will probably determine whether the service is a long-term success and not just a historical footnote.

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