Digital Nation: MP3 Trading Runs In Family

Jeff Levy says he's not bitter that thousands, including his dad, now trade MP3s without fear of prosecution.

Like lots of college students, Jeff Levy has heard all about the controversial MP3-trading software called Napster.

But he's been hearing testimonials about it from an unusual source — his middle-aged dad.

"He said you could find anything on it," the younger Levy, a senior at the University of Oregon, said. "Any artist is pretty much on there, even obscure artists from central Africa. It's all there."

But what makes dad's embrace of Napster especially intriguing is who his son happens to be.

Jeff Levy, 22, is the only person ever convicted of trading MP3s and other copyrighted material online.

Levy pleaded guilty to violating the No Electronic Theft Act, a federal anti-piracy law, in August. Three months later, a judge handed him two years' probation, during which he is not allowed to have home Internet access or a CD burner.

Levy now has a felony criminal record. But the chances his dad will ever see cops or a courtroom over MP3 trading are next to nil.

That's because when Levy traded songs by "Sweet Surrender" (RealAudio excerpt) singer Sarah McLachlan — along with software, movies and games — he was operating in the "PN" time: pre-Napster.

Napster and similar programs such as Gnutella, CuteMX and Scour Exchange have made it so easy to trade MP3s that the traffic among traders has skyrocketed.

Even parents are doing it.

Which makes prosecution of individual users — many of whom are violating copyrights every bit as much as Jeff Levy did — impractical.

"We don't have any plans to pursue Napster users individually," said Lydia Pelliccia, a spokesperson for the Recording Industry Association of America, a trade group that has often worked with law-enforcement authorities to shut down pirates.

Sean Hoar, the assistant U.S. attorney who prosecuted Levy's case, did not return calls. But John Crosiar, a spokesperson for the University of Oregon, said the school has no designs on turning other copyright violators in to the police.

UO has even held off on banning Napster use on campus, as dozens of schools across the country have done. "The university is monitoring it to see how things go," Crosiar said.

So where does that leave Levy?

Despite a judge's order forbidding his home Internet connection, the Phish and Grateful Dead fan maintains a home link to cyberspace to check email and read news. But his trading days are over, he said.

"I don't really have the time or desire to do that anymore," Levy said. "I think I've moved beyond that."

Maybe you can chalk it up to his hippie-ish personality, or his goals for changing the world through electoral activism when he graduates in December — but Levy said he is not bitter that thousands of people now spend hours a day doing precisely what he did, apparently free from the reach of the law.

"I'm all for it," he said. "It's nice to see that it's getting so organized now. It's nice to see that people are not just doing it on their own, but there's actually some sort of structure going on. People are trying to cautiously create some sort of revolution in music. That's a good thing."

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