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Gracenote under pressure

CD-burning software maker Roxio finds an ally in open-source advocates angry that Gracenote is claiming ownership of a database created by the public.

Online music database Gracenote, which once labeled itself a "grassroots Internet darling," got a lesson Friday in the slash-and-burn culture of the Internet after announcing it would sue a customer intent on moving to an open-source competitor of its song database.

After the Thursday announcement, open-source advocates--from Linux evangelists to technophile site Slashdot.org--inundated the defendant of the suit, CD-burning software maker Roxio, with letters of support and criticized Gracenote openly.

In a statement Thursday, Gracenote said it had charged Roxio with patent infringement. Without addressing the legal merits of those claims, critics attacked the suit for seeking to undermine principles of the open-source philosophy, which posits that information should be freely shared.

Most irksome for open-sourcers: Gracenote's efforts to put a fence around a database of CD songs and album titles, which were largely entered by the public, not the company's employees.

"The (CD database) project out of which these guys grew was an open project, and because of their positioning as an open database, they got thousands of people entering in titles and songs on their own," said Bruce Perens, the senior global strategist for Linux and open source at Hewlett-Packard and a well-known open-source evangelist. "Having taken those people's works, they decided to close it off. That sounds extremely sleazy to me."

A representative of Berkeley, Calif.-based Gracenote would not immediately comment Friday.

Roxio disputes Gracenote's claims. The wholly owned subsidiary of Adaptec publishes the popular EasyCD Creator program for burning audio and data CDs. The package is frequently bundled with new CD-R drives.

According to spokeswoman Kathryn Kelly, Roxio used Gracenote's CD database for the previous version of its software because Gracenote didn't charge any fee.

However, the company said Gracenote now appears to be changing the licensing agreement to garner modest licensing fees from its customers. Instead of paying the fees, Roxio decided instead to use an open-source alternative, FreeDB.org, which was created after the CD database became proprietary.

"We are still trying to find out if anyone is paying for it," Kelly said.

Gracenote has since cut off all of Roxio's software from accessing the database, she said. Roxio is in the process of creating a patch for users of its EasyCD Creator 4 to be able to access song titles using the FreeDB.

People posting to the Slashdot community site criticized Gracenote for its tactics.

"Personally, I think that if they are going to charge people license fees, they need to then reimburse all of us that spent time inputting information into their database," said one anonymous poster to the board.

"I know I added well over 200 CDs to (the CD database) when it first got started," added the poster, who totaled his fees to $840.

Drew Streib, a volunteer helping with the FreeDB in the United States, doesn't believe the suit will have much affect on the availability of song data over the Internet, as the open-source alternative is an international effort.

"I don't believe it would have a direct effect on FreeDB, except on its future here in the States," he said.