The privately held Silicon Valley start-up created software that lets Net users trade audio tracks encoded in the popular MP3 format directly from their PCs. The company last month was slapped with a lawsuit from the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which accused it of "facilitating piracy."
But now it's Napster that is lodging an intellectual property complaint.
Stanford University senior David Weekly posted a page describing the Napster protocol, or the way Napster's servers communicate with users' computers and transfer information.
Shortly after Weekly posted the protocol, Napster requested that he take it down.
"Although I'm sure that the work you've done reverse engineering the Napster protocol was a fascinating project for you, I must remind you that doing so is in violation of the license agreement that you agreed to when you installed the Napster application," Napster vice president of engineering Eddie Kessler wrote in an email to Weekly. "Napster doesn't support, encourage or condone this behavior."
Kessler wrote that his main concern was that others might use the information to attack the service and its members, adding, "It is essential that you immediately remove your analysis from your Web site and from anywhere else that it has been published."
Weekly declined to remove the protocol and subsequently urged others to copy and disseminate the page.
He said he reverse engineered the Napster protocol just to see whether he could and to help build his programming skills; he then posted his results to help others working on Napster clones.
Weekly said that others have posted even more comprehensive information than he has. In particular, he cited an online project called OpenNap: Open Source Napster Server, which aggregates information and links to Napster clones and versions for various platforms including Linux, Gnome, Java, BeOS, IRC, KDE and the Macintosh.
Kessler acknowledged that Weekly is not the first to reverse engineer Napster's protocol or even to take the additional step of creating a Napster clone. He said the company supports these efforts when individuals produce applications that will run on platforms Napster doesn't support.
In one example, Napster recently hired a team that had created a version of the application, dubbed "Macster," for the Macintosh. Kessler said an important difference between Weekly's actions and those of the Macster programmers is that they did not publish their source code.
Weekly suggested that Napster's core mission puts it in an awkward position in asking him to pull down the information on the protocol.
"Fundamentally I think that it's not something that's harmful to Napster," said Weekly. "But more than that, it's in line with the ideals Napster embodies: the discovery and sharing of information. The irony is not lost on me that their sole business is distributing the information of other people."
Napster said its mission and the RIAA lawsuit are not relevant to the flap with Weekly.
"I think it's an apples and oranges comparison," said company spokesman Brandon Barber. "This guy is referencing some really sensitive proprietary information. It's not an analogous situation."
The contretemps between Napster and Weekly is an example of what can happen when programmers try to reverse engineer a company's software. The online entertainment sector especially has been riddled with legal fights.
A Norwegian teenager was arrested Monday on charges that he reverse engineered an encryption program that prevents DVDs from being viewed through unauthorized players. Another example is Free-expression.org's efforts to create an open source alternative to RealNetworks' streaming multimedia player.