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File trading: A family affair

Aimster's Johnny and Aimee Deep gird for a long legal battle over file swapping and copyrights. Will they succeed where MP3.com and Napster failed?

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
6 min read
Last of the free song traders
By John Borland
Staff Writer, CNET News.com
May 23, 2001, 12:30 p.m. PT

As Napster and MP3.com join forces with the record companies, and other file-swapping services quietly add blocking functions, Aimster stands out as one of the last bomb throwers left on the front lines.

Based in upstate New York, CEO Johnny Deep and his daughter Aimee have proved to be one of the most persistent thorns in the record companies' sides in the past few months.

But together they've provided one of the most curious--and perhaps jarring--combinations in the Net's history: a legal challenge that could become one of the most potent threats to copyright holders' ability to monitor Net users' file trading, and a female teen idol for the struggling file-trading revolution.

Deep is a former author and software programmer who built the Aimster software in pieces over the last few years. Originally conceived as a plug-in to his daughter's AOL Instant Messenger software to protect her privacy, the software evolved into a file-swapping service with chat capabilities last year. He launched it as "Aimster," a now-controversial name that is either his daughter's nickname or a joint play on Napster and AOL's AIM software, depending on which side of the courtroom you're sitting on.

Now his software--managed by a company that includes just himself, his daughter, and a stable of loosely associated consultants and other technical help--is one of the heirs to Napster's crown. That position has Deep and his daughter up to their ears in both traffic and legal tangles.

Where Napster is doing its best to make up with the record industry, Aimster is filing its own lawsuits, asking a court to declare that what it's doing is legal. It's not primarily a music-swapping service, even if people are using it to trade songs, Deep contends. He says Aimster is software for setting up private networks, and it's not the record companies' right to peer inside these any more than copyright police can walk into someone's house without a warrant.

But the company has other legal headaches going.

We're really trying to defend the right to privacy on the Internet. I think that's a cause that's worth fighting for, even if it's at some risk or peril to yourself. The Aimster name drew a complaint from AOL Time Warner, which said Aimster infringed on its trademarks. Earlier this week, a domain name arbitration panel ruled that the Deeps have to give up Aimster.com and related domain names, a decision that could cripple their business.

Through all of this--or perhaps because of the stream of controversy--traffic has been increasing steadily. And for the last several months, the site has had a spokesmodel in Aimee, who emerged in glamour-style photographs and public interviews after her 16th birthday. She's become a minor celebrity on the Net, attending movie openings in New York, parties at Tina Brown's Talk magazine, and recently getting her picture in Time.

CNET talked to both Johnny and Aimee Deep about their place in the flagging file-swapping revolution. The interview was conducted in part by phone and partly via instant messaging, as might be appropriate for a company like Aimster.

Q: What was the original idea behind Aimster in terms of intended use, and where did its name come from?
Aimee Deep Aimee: I wanted to offer privacy to all my friends online, because I knew we weren't getting that through instant messaging. The name has just been between me and my dad for a while, and we thought it would be a really cool thing to name the company.

Aimee, what role did you play in developing the service?
Aimee: I've been on a computer since I was 5, so it's natural for me to do computer things, you know, because I'm really interested in them. I helped to write some of the software and came up with some of the ideas for them.

Do you take programming classes in school? How did you learn to program?
Aimee: My Dad could help me, since he knew a lot about it.

What can you do about the decision to take the Aimster domain name away from you?
Aimee: I want to keep it Aimster; I don't see how they can take my name away from me. I don't even understand why they want to. I don't get the issue.

As a software developer you have to have the greatest respect for copyright. It is what guards what you do as an artist, whether you're a developer or writer or musician. Johnny: I don't really get the issue either, other than that arbitration forums are obviously prejudiced in favor of multinational corporations, and they're trying to knock down small companies wherever they can. That's a horrendous decision made by that forum.

What will you do now?
Johnny: If we were to lose the domain name it would affect about 5 million users who would all have to re-download the client. And since they wouldn't know which URL to go to, to download the client you can see that the damage would be irreparable. There are also thousands of links on all the major search engines which would go dead and could not be updated. We will file the appeal before the deadline next week.

With Napster going into the major labels' sphere of influence, and other file-swapping companies agreeing to filter music, you're one of the last ones making a legal stand on this issue. What role do you see yourselves playing?
Johnny: We're really trying to defend the right to privacy on the Internet. I think that's a cause that's worth fighting for, even if it's at some risk or peril to yourself. I think it's also a defense of Internet services in general. Internet services themselves are going to come under the burden of having to police if the trend continues, and then there won't be any Internet at all...It becomes a kind of absurd obligation to police an Internet service.

Are you willing to fight the kind of lawsuit that Napster is engaged in if it comes to that?
Johnny: That's a question for everybody involved. Personally, I guess I am. We'd have to poll everybody besides just myself who would be affected.

Aimee, you started coming into the public eye a few months ago. Why that time? And how do you feel about taking such a public role?
Aimee: It's so great. I'm learning to deal better and voice opinions. And I'm meeting cool people along the way. We decided to do that then just for publicity reasons and stuff like that. And I turned 16, so my Dad said I could do that then.

Johnny: We were trying to shield her from the publicity before then.

What you folks are doing is pushing the conventional interpretations of copyright law in some interesting ways. Do you see yourselves as spokespeople for the way copyright law ought to be interpreted?
Johnny: It's an interesting perspective that we have on it. Myself, I started out as an author and a classical pianist. I've always wanted to be an artist in a number of genres. As a software developer, too, you have to have the greatest respect for copyright. It is what guards what you do as an artist, whether you're a developer or writer or musician.

At the same time, other rights, the broader rights of the public, are being infringed on by the large companies that guard copyright. That is, the right of privacy, rights in your own home, for your home not to be searched, evidence not to be seized without a warrant, freedom of expression. There are all sorts of rights that are more basic and more fundamental than my own selfish rights as an artist. So I guess I have to put myself below the other rights and try to guard the rights of citizens everywhere.

Would you like to see this go to Congress?
Johnny: I don't think it will go to Congress. That's just my own personal view. I think there are a number of people who are really interested in the topic, but it's such a difficult topic that I don't see it being legislated. I see it being decided in the courts. I think courts will ultimately give us guidance on how to interpret the law, and on the fundamental rights of the Constitution.