A new company wants to make Internet radio easier to use but may be headed for a Napster-style legal battle.
The Audio Mill's RadioActive Tuner, due to be released in a beta test version this week, scours Net radio sites and picks out the data identifying artists and song titles. Users can choose their favorite artists and get directed to the radio stations most likely to play those artists.
"What we're doing is facilitating the music discovery process," said said Bill Putnam Jr., CEO of The Audio Mill.
But the program's most controversial feature is that it acts as a virtual tape deck, recording 'Net radio files that can be played back at any time. It can even be set to record, say, all the U2 or Jennifer Lopez songs that it hears, unattended, so a user can play them back later.
Making copies of regular radio broadcasts is legal, but it's not clear whether it's legal to record off streaming radio sites, said copyright law expert and Vanderbilt University law professor Steven Hetcher.
"Generally, if you go to sites that do streaming audio, there will be terms in the license agreement … that you respect their copyrights and that they don't allow recording," he said.
Scraping and Ripping
RadioActive is a combination "site scraper" and "stream ripper," with a central server surveying broadcasters identified by Audio Mill's staff.
Most audio streams build in silent data showing artist names and track titles.
RadioActive's computer strips out that data and builds it into a list connecting stations with the artists they play. As each Internet radio site does this slightly differently, Audio Mill will set up a slightly different system to handle each. That's the site scraping part.
When users punch in an artist name, they get a menu of stations likely to play that artist. They can listen to the streams, monitoring what each station is playing, hopping from station to station. Then, if they want, they can set RadioActive to record a set of songs they can play back later. That's the stream ripping.
The files, in MP3 or RealAudio, are encrypted and digitally tethered so they can't be copied, downloaded or moved from the machine they've been recorded on, Putnam said.
"The motivation is to take a strong step and be proactive about not letting people share the files," he said.
RadioActive Tuner will run on Windows 95, 98, 2000 and NT. Commercial and free versions are planned.
Broadcasters had mixed responses to RadioActive Tuner. John Jeffrey, executive vice president of Live365, which broadcasts about 30,000 virtual radio stations, was downright hostile.
"They better not have our content. … We would probably contact them and ask them to stop," he said. Regarding the stream-ripping function, "we can break those sites so that they can't use our site," he said.
Mike Wise, chief financial officer of NetRadio, was more relaxed about RadioActive's search function. If it drives more traffic to his site, it's a good thing, he said. And NetRadio's chief technology officer, Rick Haley, said they didn't object to stream-ripping, as long as it was OK with the recording industry.
Putnam said The Audio Mill is talking to broadcasters and record labels about accessing their sites and music. Record companies shouldn't be afraid of RadioActive, he said, as listening to streaming audio, which is both nontransferable — so far — and generally much lower quality than Napster's MP3 files, will drive high-quality CD sales.
"We believe that there's just a wonderful opportunity, once we help people discover the music, to then have a follow-up commerce opportunity," he said.