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Thursday, 3 October, 2002, 11:14 GMT 12:14 UK
Q&A: What is digital downloading?

Music websites are offering 5-worth of downloads to try and convince people to stop using services which they say pirate music.
But what exactly is digital downloading and why are record companies so concerned about piracy?

I'm completely new to this - what does digital downloading mean?

By using your computer and an internet connection you can download songs, albums, video clips and even films on to your PC to watch and listen to again and again.

Sounds good. Do I need a special computer or will my old PC suffice?

Put simply - the more powerful computer you have, the better and it really helps to have a fast internet connection because music and video files can be very large.

How long does it take to download a song, or an album or a film?

If you have a 56K modem, and most people use this type of connection to the internet, it can take up to 30 minutes to download a single song and many, many hours for an album. Don't even bother trying to download a film.

If you have broadband connection, then a song can be downloaded in seconds and an entire film in minutes. But it all depends on the speed of the computer at the other end of the phone line.

Other computer? Now, I'm lost - where does the song or film actually come from?

That all depends. If you are using a music industry-backed, online service, such as Pressplay or MusicNet, then the songs, stored as MP3 files, are sent to you from a central computer.

But if you are using an unofficial service, such as Kazaa or Morpheus, then you are downloading the song or film from another user. It's called peer-to-peer and essentially a service like Kazaa puts your computer in touch with another user's PC and you are exchanging files over the internet directly.

Unofficial services? Can I get into trouble for doing this?

If you use a legal service, of course you won't be in trouble. But you have to pay for the privilege.

But services such as Kazaa are free and you will be using music and films which are copyrighted works without permission and that is against the law. Film and record companies don't want you to listen to music or watch films without paying for it first, of course.

But it is very difficult at the moment to prevent peer-to-peer services from operating and even harder to track down individuals who are downloading files without paying for them.

Recently, US record companies have reportedly started to clog up the unofficial services by registering dummy songs. You think you are downloading the latest Britney Spears song, for example, but in reality it is just noise.

They hope to infuriate those downloading without paying and force them to use the legal services.

You said something about MP3 files - I've heard about these, but what are they?

An MP3 file is just a way of storing information digitally - in this case audio files. The clever thing about them is that they can store more information, in this case music, in a smaller size making it easier and faster to download.

But don't get confused - an MP3 file is just a piece of music or audio.

You've probably heard of MP3 players. These are just Walkman-style devices which allow you to transfer the files from your PC on to the device and listen to them away from your computer.

Is the quality of an MP3 file as good as the sound on a CD?

Depends. Songs can be stored as a MP3 file in different sizes. The bigger the size, the better the quality, but the longer it will take to download.

MP3 files recorded at about 196 kilobits per second are equal to CD quality. An entire album recorded at this quality will take up about 86 megabytes of space.

How do I turn music into an MP3 file?

Programs such as Windows Media Player, on PCs, and iTunes, on Apples will convert music CDs into MP3 files easily and quickly.

They will also do it vice versa so that MP3 files you have downloaded can be turned back into normal sound files and then recorded on to CDs that you can play on any CD player.

Some CD players, including most DVD players, will also play CDs that have MP3 files stored on them.

The advantage here is that you can store more MP3 files onto a CD than normal songs because they are smaller in size.

If I want to pay for digital downloads, how much does it cost?

It varies. A good rule of thumb is that 1 will get you one burn, or 50 downloads or up to 500 streams. Although initially the range of artists on services such as Pressplay were limited, now there is a huge array available.

Of course, unofficial services have as many songs available as the users have stored on their computers.

Wait a minute - burn, download and stream? I'm lost again.

Pay attention - a download is a song that is stored on your computer's hard drive but can only be listened to via your PC.

A stream is a bit like a radio station - the music plays via your PC but is not recorded anywhere. Audio and video clips on BBC News Online are streamed to your PC.

A burn is a song that you have downloaded and can be copied on to a CD by using a CD copier or burner.

Why are record companies so concerned about downloading music files?

Because they are worried that people are downloading songs for free and that they are losing revenue. Services such as Napster blazed a trail for online music and it is only recently that official services have begun to catch up.

Okay, I can download songs and albums legally. But what about movies?

Film studios are slowly beginning to offer movies on demand from the internet. The range of films is really limited - often older, less successful films are available. But this is changing.

Warner Bros recently announced that the Harry Potter movies will be streamed on the internet. The important word here is "streamed". You can watch it but not store it on your hard drive or burn it on to a DVD.

Film studios are increasingly worried that they will be hit in the same way as record companies - people will download films without paying and then copy them on to DVDs.

Record companies and film studios are battling to stop free, illegal downloads so will we all be forced to pay in the future?

The problem for the companies is that the technically minded will always find a way to bypass their security arrangements. They just hope the rest of us will be happy to pay.

Of course, it is worth stressing that downloading copyrighted music or films without paying the appropriate copyright holder is illegal.

See also:

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