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Bertelsmann dabbled in file-swapping before Napster bid

A low-profile Bertelsmann subsidiary halts testing of a search engine that could have expanded the media giant's profile well beyond that of controversial partner Napster.

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Digital music post-Napster
John Borland, senior reporter, News.com
Until just a few weeks ago, a low-profile Bertelsmann subsidiary was testing a file-swapping search engine that could have expanded the media giant's profile well beyond that of controversial partner Napster.

A Bertelsmann spokesman said Monday that file-swapping service Snoopstar, which was running in a beta program until earlier this month, had been shut down as the company focuses on its venture with Napster. Snoopstar is part of Bertelsmann's eCommerce Group, which has taken the lead in investing in and working with Napster since last October.

"We have many IT companies within Bertelsmann's portfolio, and Snoopstar happens to be one of those," said Bertelsmann spokesman Frank Sarfeld. "We had a limited beta test period with some 1,000 users, but this period is over because we decided we have this strategic alliance with Napster, and Bertelsmann eCommerce Group is really committed to this cooperation," he said.

Engineers at Snoopstar had come up with a search engine that looked for music and video files much like services on big portal Web sites, and had decided to test it out, Sarfeld said. "There's nothing special about this."

A history of the company and its technology laid out by a series of online traces appears to tell a slightly more tangled story, however. It also appears to show that the media giant's eCommerce Group was interested in tapping the potential of Napster's file-swapping revolution long before striking a deal with the company in October.

Snoopster was registered as a domain name last July by Matthias Runte, who listed himself in his online resume as a consultant to Bertelsmann MediaSystems, a technology branch of the conglomerate's eCommerce Group, until last August.

But another name soon enters the picture. A Nigerian-born student living in Germany named Mark Essien, who developed a file-sharing search engine called Gnumm last year, claims in an online posting to have sold his technology to Snoopstar. Gnumm was updated until last August, Essien says in a post on an open-source Web site where the software was distributed.

"The software was noticed by another company interested in file sharing technologies (Snoopstar), and they bought my software from me, and hired me to work for them," Essien wrote in a letter arguing against software patents posted on a European Linux site.

Neither Runte nor Essien had replied to e-mails by late Monday.

Like the eventual Snoopstar software, Gnumm searched other peer-to-peer networks for files. Downloading the software would allow people to search Napster and Gnutella at the same time, for example.

For its short life, Snoopstar did much the same thing, searching networks running the Napster and its open-source protocols, Gnutella and Imesh. Similar search engines have been hosted in the past by companies such as MP3Board.com, Angry Coffee and ZeroPaid.com.

In a posting on his personal home page, Essien said his new company creates file-sharing software that he recommends more highly than Gnumm, however.

It's not whether Bertelsmann is finished with the Snoopstar file-sharing search engine, even if its early version has been taken offline.

A posting on the company's site notes that the beta test has been suspended. It exhorts visitors to "check back frequently for news."

That news could simply be a pointer to Napster, of course. Bertelsmann has loaned the embattled file-sharing leader nearly $60 million to create a subscription service, which it hopes to launch in July.

That ambition depends on winning licenses to music released by labels other than Bertelsmann subsidiary BMG Music. So far, other labels have been resistant.

News of Snoopstar's Bertelsmann link was earlier reported in a German language publication.

CNET Radio Executive Editor Steve Kovsky contributed to this report.