AOL developed the search engine one month ago and posted it on the Web site for Winamp, a Web-based MP3 player developed by AOL subsidiary Nullsoft. The feature presented links to sites that let people download MP3 files, regardless of whether the files required payment or were illegally copied.
Since the search engine was unable to draw a line between legal and illegal files, AOL decided to drop the service.
"We're taking it down because we don't have an efficient process in distinguishing between legal and illegal MP3s," AOL spokesman Jim Whitney said.
The scrapping of the feature could mark another culture clash between new and traditional media, analysts say. AOL is in the process of acquiring media giant Time Warner, which also runs several record labels under its Warner Music Group. Now that the companies are merging, AOL must walk a fine line when developing new Internet services to ensure they don't threaten Time Warner's existing businesses.
Eric Scheirer, an analyst at Forrester Research, speculated that AOL's move could be a goodwill gesture to the record companies. Increasingly, Web companies and record labels are warming to each other in hopes of signing deals in the future. Portals want to use the labels' song libraries, while the labels want extensive, legal distribution of their songs on the Web.
AOL has taken other steps to play nice with the recording industry. This spring, the company pulled its peer-to-peer file-swapping software project, Gnutella. The service was developed by programmers at Nullsoft, which created Winamp. Like the controversial Napster, which is being sued by the recording industry, Gnutella allows people to search and trade songs in MP3 and other files.
But before AOL's decision to remove Gnutella, a beta version had already leaked online. Several programmers found the software and then distributed its source code--the software's blueprint--on the Net. Many developers have already begun adapting Gnutella for applications other than MP3 searches.
AOL is not alone in developing a search engine devoted to MP3 files. Last year, Web portal Lycos launched its own MP3 search engine in partnership with Norwegian tech firm Fast. The search engine has become a popular feature on Lycos Music but has raised warning flags from the record industry.
The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has threatened to sue Lycos for its MP3 search engine. The RIAA has taken legal action against MP3Board, another a MP3 search engine, for copyright infringement. MP3Board attorneys have argued that the service provides links to other sites and that it's these sites that should be held responsible for posting pirated song files.
For AOL, a service similar to MP3Board could draw legal attention from the RIAA. But Forrester's Scheirer remains skeptical that AOL's decision to pull its MP3 search engine was based on fears of legal ramifications.
"The idea that AOL would be more conservative and more fearful than Lycos doesn't make sense," he said.