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Check it out: Free tunes at KC libraries

Updated: 2013-03-03T05:19:58Z

By MATT CAMPBELL

The Kansas City Star

Maybe you’ve loaded your iTunes library with music copied from borrowed CDs. Or downloaded tracks, pirate style, from dubious file-sharing websites.

But what if you could load up on music without dodging copyright law — and still not pay?

Your library wants to help.

More and more people are discovering a way to acquire music from red-hot artists like Beyoncé, Adele and Mumford & Sons that is both free and legal.

It’s called Freegal and it is newly available through local public libraries.

Yes, the library. The place where, traditionally, one borrows materials with the understanding they must be returned.

But with Freegal, the songs you download to your computer and MP3 player or iPod are yours — forever.

“Once people find out we have it, they can’t believe the library is letting you download music and keep it,” said Jessica Ford, a spokeswoman for the Mid-Continent Public Library.

Mid-Continent began offering Freegal in August. By Feb. 15, some 3,700 patrons had downloaded more than 40,500 songs.

The Kansas City Public Library began offering the service in December and its patrons have downloaded more than 6,500 songs.

The Johnson County Public Library began offering Freegal last month and after 10 days it already had 300 users who had downloaded nearly 1,000 songs.

Freegal is the brainchild of entrepreneur Brian Downing, who launched it in May 2010 with just a handful of libraries. Now, more than 2,000 library systems around the world subscribe to it through a company called Library Ideas. More than 1 million users last year downloaded more than 19 million songs, all for free, Downing said.

More than a decade ago, the music industry was aghast and fought vigorously to protect its intellectual product when a teenager, nicknamed Napster and founder of the eponymous company, devised a way to share copyrighted music. Users could compile massive collections by swapping but not paying. The industry went to court to try to stop this kind of piracy because neither it nor the artists were getting money in the deal.

But Downing was able to persuade Sony Music — the behemoth that owns 54 labels with artists that include Paul Simon, Justin Timberlake and Bruce Springsteen — to give him access to its catalog. He then sells that database to library systems and they make it available to their patrons. Part of the money that libraries pay Freegal goes back to the record company.

It’s a different model from peer-to-peer file sharing.

“There is money changing hands,” Downing said.

Libraries pay a flat fee for Freegal that is based on the population the library district serves and the number of transactions it makes. But the fee does not float depending on how many songs patrons download in a year.

The Kansas City Public Library is paying $39,000 a year for Freegal. The Johnson County Public Library is paying $92,500 and Mid-Continent is paying $110,000.

For perspective, Mid-Continent spent $189,000 last year on music CDs.

Technically, the downloaded music is not free because the libraries are tax-supported.

But for an individual, downloading a song from Freegal means not paying $1.30 or so to iTunes. Library patrons are limited to three songs from Freegal a week, but that’s potentially more than 150 songs a year, a savings of as much as $200.

If you have library cards from more than one system, or there is more than one library card holder in your family, the number of songs you can access increases.

You don’t even need to go to the library to use Freegal. All you need is a library card number to create a PIN and log-in. The app is free for Apple and Android devices. Downloaded songs will play in Windows Media Player, iTunes and other players. It works on both PCs and Macs. Songs can be transferred to an MP3 player or iPod. After downloading three songs in a week, users may start again on Sundays at 11 p.m. Central Time.

Anecdotally, libraries report that Freegal draws more people to the library, which then potentially exposes them to books and other resources they have to offer.

“At some of the schools we visit, it has been a cause for students to get into the library,” Ford said. “It’s a good reason for them to get a library card. Then they can see what else we have. It sparks an interest in the library.”

Freegal also has a democratizing effect of making music available to people who are not as electronically connected, said Joel Jones, director of branch and outreach services for the Kansas City Public Library.

“This gives them an opportunity to put music on their inexpensive MP3 player and go mobile with it,” Jones said.

Adam Wathen, collection development manager for the Johnson County Public Library, said Freegal may not appeal to people who are content with streaming music through other services and who do not feel a need to “own” it. He also is a little bothered by the three-songs-a-week limitation of access.

Wathen’s library is close to providing another database called Naxos, which offers research-quality music — such as important jazz, classical and folk recordings — that patrons can stream without limits. But they can’t download.

“I like that model a lot more because I think libraries are more about access than ownership,” Wathen said. “Access is the name of the game. If we’ve created access to content for our users then we’ve done our job.”

Still, Wathen thinks Freegal is going to be popular with library patrons.

It already offers users about 3 million songs from more than 16,000 labels, including Sony’s, from all over the world. (There are some gaps: The Beatles, Justin Bieber, the Rolling Stones and Tupac Shakur are among the missing.)

Downing told The Star he expects the music available through Freegal to more than double this year.

“We’re adding a lot of independent labels,” he said. “Of course, people love the big labels’ stuff, but they also love depth and breadth. Everybody who logs on can find something that they like.”

To reach Matt Campbell, call 816-234-4902 or send email to mcampbell@kcstar.com

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