Late this week, members of the Israel-based iMesh service--the largest pure file-swapping service left outside of Napster--saw a new note as they logged on, telling them they'd soon have access to considerably less music.
"Following (the) RIAA's request, iMesh is currently in the process of disabling the downloads of files protected by the copyright law," the note read. "Those files will appear in the search results list with a © sign, and their download will not be possible."
The company's capitulation marks a significant--if not wholly unexpected--blow to the beleaguered file-swapping world catalyzed by Napster's service last year. As songs have disappeared from Napster's service under an injunction from a federal court, people have flocked to these alternatives in hopes of keeping their access to free music alive.
According to CNET Download.com, a software download site maintained by News.com publisher CNET Networks, nearly 7 million people have downloaded the iMesh software, with 332,000 of these coming in the last week. More than 4 million people have downloaded rival Audio Galaxy's software.
iMesh has been among the few services that have kept operating unrestricted since Napster's legal troubles began. Because it is based in Israel, it has been viewed as slightly harder to reach than U.S.-based services.
Record industry executives have said for several weeks that they are contacting commercial file-swapping services with legal warnings based on recent court decisions. They have not given specifics as to which companies they have contacted or precisely what they are demanding, however.
"We have contacted iMesh and are hoping they will address our concerns," Matt Oppenheimer, senior vice president of business and legal affairs for the Recording Industry Association of America, said Friday. "We have not yet examined their approach to determine if it does that."
The trade organization has also contacted Internet service providers asking them to block access to noncommercial OpenNap servers--swapping sites run by individuals using Napster's technology--hosted by their subscribers.
iMesh representatives could not be reached for comment.
Napster all over again?
Although the voluntary filtering process appears to have begun, it's far from clear how successful any of the efforts will be.
In Napster's case, the company and the industry are fighting bitterly over how much is being blocked--and how well. Napster uses text filters, screening out song titles that have been identified as copyrighted by the record labels. Because songs or artist names are often misspelled, the company has also entered tens of thousands of misspellings into the filters' database.
In court filings Tuesday, Napster said it has screened out more than 311,000 songs. It has also changed its terms of service to bar people from deliberately trying to evade the filters, the company said.
But the RIAA has said these efforts have been almost wholly unsuccessful, even if many versions of the songs are being blocked. In a court filing last week, the trade group noted that nearly all of the songs supposedly screened out were still available for download in some form. The two sides return to court Tuesday for a hearing on Napster's compliance with the court order curbing copyright violations.
In iMesh's case, it's not clear that any blocking has begun. A search of several prominent artists, including Madonna, Metallica and The Beatles, brought up multiple download options, none of which were labeled as copyrighted.
The file-swapping arena still has a few companies that are operating unchanged, however.
To date, no public action from the industry has been taken against the Gnutella file-swapping network, a more decentralized option relying only on individuals' computers, instead of companies running Napster- or iMesh-like servers. Late last month, RIAA executives said they were not yet worried about Gnutella use, but were monitoring the network closely.
Aimster, the company that allows people to trade files only with a group of people listed in their instant messaging "buddy lists," says it hasn't yet been contacted by the RIAA. That company has encrypted transmissions on its network and argues that any attempt to monitor the file-swapping activities of its members would itself be a violation of federal copyright law.
"We can't possibly offer a privacy service and monitor our users at the same time," said Aimster spokesman Johnny Deep. The record industry "is going to have to make a decision as to whether they want to violate users' privacy."