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Programmers help "Napster" clones take off

A new portal aims to assemble the open-source community's work on Gnutella, a popular piece of file-swapping software capable of turning anyone with a computer into a music pirate.

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John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
Gnutella is dead. Long live Gnutella.

This morning, a new portal launched that aims to assemble the open-source programming community's work on Gnutella, a popular piece of file-swapping software capable of turning anyone with a computer into a music pirate.

Gnutella is similar to online music-sharing program Napster but allows anything in a digital format to be traded--from pirated MP3 music files to grandmothers' secret pie recipes.

Started by a group of programmers at the America Online-owned Nullsoft, the Gnutella project was shut down after AOL discovered the "unauthorized" development effort. But before AOL's action, the software escaped into the wild, and programmers around the Net quickly began developing their own sets of "clones" that worked like the original.

"This is a movement now," said Gene Kan, a programmer for start-up community site WeGo.com and the developer of a Unix version of Gnutella. "But we want to make sure everyone is playing the game by the same rules. Otherwise all we'd have is babble."

The growth of Gnutella raises the stakes yet again for the record industry, which already is fighting legal battles on several fronts against technologies it believes aid widespread online music piracy. Millions of illegal copies of songs are available online in the popular MP3 digital music format and are being traded every day--even among casual Internet surfers.

At the center of the debate most recently has been Napster, a piece of software that allows music lovers to connect their computers through a central server, search for songs on each others' hard drives, and download the music in a matter of minutes. At any given time, close to a million individual songs can be found through a simple Napster search, and many of them are clearly being distributed illegally.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has sued Napster, arguing that the company is abetting the spread of pirated music. "Napster...has created and is operating a haven for music piracy on an unprecedented scale," the group wrote in its recent lawsuit, estimating that damages could amount to $100 million or more.

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That case was scheduled to come to a first conclusion in court today, but a ruling has been postponed indefinitely.

Whatever the outcome of the Napster lawsuit, the open-source Gnutella movement may well prove to be the more dangerous branch of the file-swapping technology trend.

Because Napster runs through only a few central servers, it is an easy target for lawyers seeking to shut down the service or for those looking for individuals swapping files through the Napster software.

Gnutella has no central location. It's modeled after the way the Internet itself is connected: One person starts the software, connecting directly to another person who is running the service, who is connected to a third, and so on, with as many individual links as there are people running the software.

That means it's much harder to shut down the service or to track individuals who are using it.

In addition, because Gnutella is an open-source movement, thousands of completely unconnected individuals around the Internet could be working on the software at any given time, without a single person or group leading the effort.

With open-source software, anyone can see and modify the original programming blueprints, or "source code," of a program. This allows thousands of programmers to work on improving and spreading the program, as has happened with the popular Linux operating system.

"This makes the whole thing that much more difficult to nail down," said Jeremy Schwartz, an industry analyst with Forrester Research. "If there's not a centralized server, if it can suddenly crop up anywhere, how do you monitor that?"

The Nullsoft programmers who invented the program say they aren't involved in the new versions of Gnutella. But the open-source community has taken their original software, examined the way it works, and created a set of rules for programs that work the same way. Several new versions have since sprung up, and more are being developed every week for Windows and other operating systems.

The record companies themselves are beginning to recognize that their salvation lies outside the courts, despite the full-bore effort against Napster.

"The industry has recognized that laws are not the way to stop this problem," said John Simson, an RIAA attorney who recently took over the group's online music licensing division. "Technology is the way to go."

The industry is betting that secure copy-protection technologies, developed under the auspices of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), will stop the spread of new music through systems like Napster or Gnutella, Simson said.

The portal that launched today is a first version of what eventually will be a far broader offering for developers and users of the Gnutella software. It contains close to a dozen variations of the programs, along with the technical information needed to write new versions.

The loosely affiliated group of programmers running the Gnutella site say they expect the portal to be contacted by the record industry or other copyright holders at some point. But even if that call comes, they say it won't do any good.

"If anyone were to shut us down, there would just be another head of the dragon put back," Kan said.