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The music industry vs. reality

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This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 2, 2001
(Issue 1909, Music and the Web)

The recent appellate court decision finding the file-sharing service Napster liable for copyright violations using its software may appear to be a victory for the music industry. But if the record company executives think they can stop people from sharing music because of a lawsuit, if they believe they can stop the technology with lawyers, they're in for a rude shock.

There are several efforts under way to create file-sharing systems that resist legal intervention; while not specifically oriented toward swapping MP3 music files, that's certainly one possible use of these new software technologies.


Gnutella News

The first thing to know about Gnutella is that there is no Gnutella. No company called Gnutella, no program called Gnutella (not anymore, anyway).

Originally released as a beta file-sharing program from AOL, once its corporate masters abandoned it Gnutella was adopted by the open-source community. Gnutella today exists as a protocol, or set of communications standards for file sharing and searches, and various programs exist to allow you to share files based on those standards.

Unlike Napster, which is owned by a corporation (albeit small) and runs its software through a central server (or more likely bank of servers), shutting down Gnutella will be a tougher battle. For starters, it's an open-source project – meaning nobody owns it. For another, it uses peer-to-peer networking, so that every computer on the Internet at any one time with Gnutella running it is in fact a mini-server.

The only way for the Hollywood moguls to shut down Gnutella would be to sue every user of every variation – and since recent studies show that those who swap music on the Internet also are among the music industry's most prolific customers, one wonders how a massive crackdown against their own customer base would play against the bottom line.

Since there is no centralized Gnutella authority, there is no "official" Gnutella Web site. The Gnutella News site listed above is as good a starting point as any, however, and has links to free Gnutella clients for Windows, Mac and Linux, as well as in-depth FAQs on what Gnutella is and how it works.


The Free Network Project

The Freenet is another decentralized file-sharing open-source project. Like the Gnutella community, nobody owns Freenet. Again like Gnutella, Freenet is simply a series of agreed-upon standards that anyone can incorporate into a file-sharing client. Finally, as with Gnutella, Freenet

Freenet is not nearly as far along in its development as Gnutella, however, nor is it as user-friendly. The beta version of a client I tried was based on Java, and uses a crude Web interface for finding files on the network – most former Napster users aren't going to have the patience to wade through the documentation to learn how to effectively use Freenet.


Open Source Napster Server

Finally, in a bit of hacking likely to send shivers down the spine of entertainment attorneys everywhere, the open source community has even adopted the Napster standards and extended them to include all files – undercutting the argument used against corporate Napster, that it was intended for piracy since it could only be used to search for media files.

With an OpenNap server, anyone can set up their own file-sharing system. While not a true peer-to-peer decentralized network, OpenNap could spread file-sharing so broadly that litigation would be useless. And by expanding the Napster protocols to allow sharing of any files, OpenNap is helping push forward the state of the art in computer networking.