An average of 640,000 people were downloading songs using Napster software at any given time last month, according to researchers at Webnoize. That figure is likely to be higher now, as neophytes flood the company's Web site and install Napster's file-sharing program in case the company is forced to close in coming weeks.
Using a common Web monitoring tool called a "sniffer," researchers at Webnoize tracked the number of Napster users and files made available from 114 servers over an extended period of days during September, including weekdays and weekends.
Webnoize analyst Matt Bailey, who organized the study released today, steered clear of legal and ethical opinions when he discussed the study. But he emphasized that Napster has struck a nerve with millions of consumers.
"The significance of our findings is that, regardless of whether the legal system decides that Napster operates illegally, demand for its service is staggering," Bailey said. Cambridge, Mass.-based Webnoize is a 3-year-old company that tracks the digital entertainment industry.
Although wildly popular, Redwood City, Calif.-based Napster is fighting for its existence. The company is appealing a July judgment for a preliminary injunction, which would effectively shutter the company for allegedly violating copyright laws and stealing the intellectual property of musicians.
The Recording Industry Association of America sued Napster late last year, and the case has become one of the most controversial and potentially precedent-setting Internet-related cases in the court system.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco heard arguments Monday and is preparing to deliver a ruling. Although there is no deadline for the court to decide Napster's fate, it could rule as early as this week.
Napster continues to operate during the waiting period, but the company has been bombarded with new users who have slowed the service to a crawl. A technical glitch temporarily disabled the site yesterday.
Few people seem to have qualms about downloading digital music for free, and most are unconcerned about copyright protection. According to the Washington-based Pew Internet in American Life Project, 78 percent of Internet users who download music to computer hard drives don't regard the practice as theft.
"Whether they are Internet users or not, the young, the highly educated, and the relatively affluent support downloaders' right to get music online for free," according to the report, "Downloading Free Music: Internet Music Lovers Don't Think It's Stealing." It will be published online at the Pew Internet and American Life Web site.
Media Metrix added more fuel to the Napster debate this morning, when the online traffic monitoring company announced that Napster attracted 6.7 million unique users in August.
That's a 509 percent increase from the 1.1 million users Napster had in February, making Napster the fastest-growing Web application Media Metrix has ever tracked.
Those figures pale in comparison to Napster's own research, which indicates a following of about 32 million users. (Media Metrix said its figure represents unique users, not repeat users who may be included in Napster's own count.)
Napster use at home and at work grew more than 30 percent from July to August, Media Metrix found, from 1.2 million unique users to 6.7 million. Popularity grew particularly swiftly among home computer users, with 8.5 percent of all home PC users tapping into Napster's catalog of digital music.
According to an online entertainment industry publication, at least two major Internet service providers are in negotiations to buy Napster.
Inside.com provided no named sources in its article, which reported that one of the companies vying for Napster is a "Western telecommunications giant," while the other is a "brand-name 'pure' Internet service provider."
Napster chief executive Hank Barry refuted the report, saying the closely held company is not for sale, according to Bloomberg News.
Bloomberg News contributed to this report.