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File traders pick up sidekick

A new tool piggybacking on popular file-sharing services such as Napster aims to help music fans ignore bogus files by letting them rate and review downloads.

A new tool piggybacking on popular file-sharing services such as Napster aims to help music fans ignore bogus files by letting them rate and review downloads.

The software, being tested by Charlottesville, Va.-based FileFreedom.com, addresses one of the biggest problems apart from filters for people using file-sharing services: faulty or poor-quality files. It lets people avoid such files by reading reviews or ratings for downloads such as they might for a book or CD bought at Amazon.com. Called SideKick, the tool is compatible with file-sharing networks such as Napster, BearShare, iMesh and Audiogalaxy.

FileFreedom jumps into the digital music fray as other companies attempt to capitalize on the popularity of file sharing.

Last month, music directory service Listen.com unveiled a new song-search service that plugs directly into Napster's software. The service replicates all the music search and recommendation functions of Listen.com's Web site but lives on an individual's PC desktop.

File-sharing program Aimster is testing a service similar to SideKick on its network that lets consumers rate files based on if they are "hot or not"--a parody of the popular Web site. Aimster President Johnny Deep said that the service will be available in the next couple of weeks.

Analysts say that such applications are just the tip of the iceberg in the file-sharing market, which has yet to prove its viability.

"Given compelling content, (SideKick) is a great application for users to spread the word about interesting writing or music--but the content has to be there," said Susan Kevorkian, an analyst at IDC. "That's still up in the air."

SideKick, which does not download files itself, works alongside a file-sharing program and seeks to build stronger communities with such networks. Like popular shopping search services, it lets people view music lists of others who downloaded a particular file, for example. Using SideKick, people can also message one another in response to their reviews and keep a friend list of those with similar tastes.

If enough people participate, such a tool could theoretically provide a way to screen out viruses, which have begun to appear on unregulated networks such as Gnutella.

Aimster's Deep said that the one downside of FileFreedom's tool is that it uses so-called fingerprinting technology, which identifies songs using the wavelength patterns produced by their sounds and could help content creators keep track of who is downloading files.

"It could conceivably be used against the consumer," he said.

The P2P myth Like peer-to-peer networks themselves, the rating system would require a relatively large number of people to participate before becoming useful. Otherwise it could fall prey to a small number of people--who might provide false positive ratings for bad or even potentially damaging files.

FileFreedom also plans to introduce a technology in mid-May that content creators and distributors can use to market their works via file-sharing networks.

Still, the success of such endeavors could be short-lived in the face of copyright issues that affected Napster and others.

"There's great utility in the file-sharing technology, but we're still waiting for appropriate business models to be developed without infringing on copyright," Kevorkian said.

Executives from FileFreedom.com could not be immediately reached for comment.

News.com's John Borland contributed to this report.