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Traffic pressures stall Napster alternatives

A popular Gnutella download site is knocked offline under a surge of demand, as music aficionados flock to alternative file-swapping services.

A popular Gnutella download site was knocked offline today under a surge of demand, as music aficionados flocked to Napster alternatives following a court ruling that ordered a shutdown of the file-swapping company.

"Due to the unprecedented traffic volume following the Napster decision we had to take the servers offline temporarily to increase bandwidth and capacity," read a message late today on one Web site that hosts Gnutella software downloads. "The site will be up again in a few hours as soon as the necessary upgrades are completed."

A similar message appeared on the Web site for Scour Exchange, a service that allows people to find and download music and video files from each other's computers.

"We've maxed out our bandwidth," blared a message on the site, which promised the situation is only temporary. However, the Scour Exchange site appeared to be working normally despite the message.

According to one person who uses Scour Exchange, new members topped 10,000 in Court: Shut down Napster a single day--up from between 300 to 800 people per week in the three weeks leading up to the ruling. Usually the service has from between 25,000 and 30,000 active users at any one time, this source said in an email to CNET News.com.

A Scour.net spokeswoman said late today that the company is not prepared to release the number of new people the service has attracted since a federal judge yesterday ordered Napster to stop facilitating the trading of copyrighted works. The order is scheduled to take effect at midnight PT tomorrow, although Napster's attorneys have requested that an appeals court postpone the deadline.

Since Napster was launched last year, it has attracted an estimated 20 million members.

Yesterday's Napster ruling was only a preliminary injunction in a district court; other judges don't yet have to follow it as a legal guideline. But Judge Marilyn Hall Patel is well respected, and her decision to stop song trading on Napster will be extremely influential in other courtrooms, attorneys say.

"This basically means you can't use peer-to-peer networks to share copyrighted files for which you don't have permission," said Mark Radcliff, a partner in the firm Gary Cary Ware and Friedenrich. "That doesn't kill peer-to-peer, but it dramatically limits its scope."

The next few weeks will be critical for alternative services, as they scramble to shoulder the load of Napster exiles and craft a legal strategy for themselves that takes Patel's ruling into account.

In court yesterday, Patel acknowledged that other services and companies perform much the same function as Napster online. The record industry will have to deal with those individually, she noted.

"That doesn't mean I can't restrain Napster," Patel said. "They're the only see story: Gnutella: From file-swapping to Web searching one in front of the court."

At the most risk are services run by actual companies such as Scour.net, iMesh and CuteMX. Like Napster, each of these services has a central server through which requests flow and--perhaps more dangerously in this case--a central corporate structure that can be sued.

Several of these companies have tried to position themselves as allies of the entertainment industry, rather than as Napster-like threats. Scour.net in particular, aided by investments from Hollywood power broker Michael Ovitz, has partnered with legitimate entertainment companies to help distribute and market films online.

But that didn't dissuade Napster wildfire the record and film industry associations from suing the company last week, charging that like Napster, it was building its business around online piracy.

Israel-based iMesh might have a slightly stronger legal shield than some of its peers because of its overseas headquarters. But attorneys said that the company might be subject to lawsuits in U.S. courts because its service operates in this country.

iMesh executives said they are still looking at the Napster decision and haven't yet formed a plan of action.

"About the legal issue, it's something I don't know yet," said Uri Rotshtein, iMesh vice president of research and development.

 Learning to share
• Napster: site that allows members to search and share MP3 files.

• iMesh.com: site that allows people to exchange various files directly from their desktops without setting up Web sites or uploading files to a server.

• Gnutella: open-source, fully distributed search and download system for media and archive files.

• CuteMX: site that offers software for searching and downloading any type of file on a network.

• Scour Exchange: central server through which requests flow, allowing movie-trading online.

• Freenet: peer-to-peer, decentralized network designed to distribute of information efficiently and without censorship.

• Napigator: a way for people to run their own Napster servers sfter the company is forced to shut down.

• FileFury: software that allows people to share files of any type and search other computers.

• Hotline: site that enables live chat, conferencing, messaging, data warehousing and file transfer and viewing.

• Jungle Monkey: distributed file-sharing program created as a research project at the University of Michigan.

• OpenNap: open-source Napster server that contains links to connected computers, as well as other file-sharing protocols.

• Spinfrenzy.com: site that offers MP3 files available from other music and video lovers' collections.

• Wrapster v1.0: file-sharing software for the Napster community that can be used to share content other than music, including movies.

Sources: News.com, company sites
Individual battles a challenge
Even though the entertainment industry can target these companies, it will have a harder time reaching into the thriving networks run by individuals, such as Gnutella or Freenet.

Gnutella, the file-swapping software created by programmers at America Online before it spread into the open-source community, has seen a huge spike in its use since yesterday.

"We got 30,000 new unique visitors in the hour after the ruling," said Gene Kan, one of the programmers who has taken a lead in the Gnutella community. "The load was so high that even (hosting company) Wego's servers were knocked offline for 20 minutes."

Nevertheless, the fact that Gnutella is safer from a legal perspective leaves its technology open to inconveniences. Because it is not centralized, the network is managed and monitored only by a group of volunteers such as Kan, who have little or no power to affect people's behavior.

That means that people can abuse the network, post misleading files or viruses, or mount denial-of-service attacks that make it difficult or impossible to log on or download. Last night, for example, a group of just a few people attacked the network in this way, Kan said.

Programmers working on the project say the network architecture itself should be strong enough to handle a huge influx of new people.

"We'll see," Kan said. "I think the network will take it."

Programmers unaffiliated with Napster the company have also created a way for individuals to run their own Napster servers. Using a program dubbed Napigator, people who want to continue using the software after the company is forced to shut down can still log on to these underground servers.

Record industry attorneys conceded that these decentralized services would remain a threat despite the precedent of Patel's ruling.

"Gnutella is going to remain a challenge," said Cary Sherman, general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of America. "But at least you will not see a new breed of Net company building on copyright theft."

News.com's Evan Hansen contributed to this report.