Programs such as Gnutella, Freenet and OpenNap are already attracting thousands of people, helping spur the evolution of peer-to-peer technology, or systems that allow people to search for and retrieve files from individual computers around the world. Many of these have been touted by file-swapping advocates as potential safe havens for Napster's millions of music traders if the popular service is shut down in the courts.
But for all the burgeoning optimism that surrounds these programs, experts say the other options may prove to be poor alternatives for Napster's millions of members if that company's business is deemed illegal.
Certainly file trading on a smaller scale will be a part of the Internet's fabric, as it long has been through Napster predecessors such as Hotline or even online chat rooms. But increasingly experts are saying that if Napster goes down, the record industry will be able to target high-volume music traders on most other systems, too, preventing any large-scale trading floor from rising to take its place.
Napster, however, isn't dead yet and could possibly survive its court ordeal. It is being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which contends the company is contributing to massive levels of copyright infringement with its service.
A district court has ordered Napster to bar any major-label songs from being traded using its service, but that order was temporarily put on hold by an appeals court.
Napster has argued that it is not doing anything illegal--and that its members aren't doing anything legally untoward by freely uploading and downloading songs though the service. A final ruling hasn't been made on that point, but many legal observers have said it is one of the longest shots in Napster's arguments.
Gnutella, the open-source, wholly decentralized network invented by an America Online programmer, is often viewed as the most likely inheritor of Napster's file-trading crown.
The network functions by connecting each individual computer to others, which are in turn connected to several others, and so on. By connecting to the shared network, it is a simple task to find the Net address of a computer providing songs online.
But those who see Gnutella as a Napster alternative beyond the reach of the courts received a wake-up call when researchers reported that only a fraction of Gnutella users supply the bulk of the content available over the network. That could make it easier for the RIAA to gut Gnutella through a few well-placed lawsuits.
A recent study by researchers at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) found that about 70 percent of people on Gnutella are "free riders," sharing no files. About 50 percent of the files shared come from just 1 percent of the people on the network, the researchers said.
"If you have a few people doing this, you can in fact target them pretty easily," said Bernardo Huberman, one of the study's authors.
Security experts agree. "Gnutella users are easily traceable," says Travis Hill, author of a Media Enforcer software program that records information about people using programs such as Napster or Gnutella. "It's really easy to grab the (Internet Protocol) address of anyone who's offering anything."
This is the traditional way that the record industry tracks operators of FTP servers and other pirate sites. Copyright law allows the industry to get an expedited warrant, much faster than ordinary search warrant procedure, that lets investigators ask Internet service providers (ISPs) specifically what subscribers are associated with a given computer, connection or Web site.
The RIAA has said it hasn't turned its enforcement resources onto the peer-to-peer world--but only because it is waiting for the legal issues surrounding the Napster case to be settled. Once the trial is over, enforcement officers have said in previous interviews, they are likely to target individuals offering large amounts of content over these networks just as they now focus on "pirate" Web sites and FTP sites.
In theory, this would have little effect on Gnutella. But the Xerox PARC study suggests that a targeted enforcement effort could pull much of the content off Gnutella simply by targeting that 1 percent of its users who provide half the network's content.
Gnutella developer Gene Kan warns that this view could be a simplistic interpretation of the study. The network is a constantly changing beast with different people online at any given time. Cutting off today's top 1 percent doesn't necessarily block tomorrow's file traders from sharing, he says.
"Even if there is a relatively small number of people sharing on the network, it would be rather difficult to track them," Kan said. "And those people are changing over time."
Other Napster alternatives have already become the targets of legal attacks. Scour, which allows swaps of video
The web of OpenNap servers--privately operated networks running on the Napster protocol without affiliation with the company--appears to offer a viable alternative. But they have some of the same problems as FTP servers: They may be relatively hard to find, but they are centralized so the RIAA can shut down operators that gain a high profile.
Freenet, a project headed by British expatriate programmer Ian Clarke, is the last high-profile alternative with a radically different technology than Napster. Freenet is completely decentralized and has privacy and anonymity built into the network. Content is distributed around the network of participating computers and encrypted so that people don't know exactly what their computers are sharing or where a file originated.
That makes enforcement extremely difficult. But the same safeguards that protect it make it more difficult for the system to be a mass-market phenomenon. It's questionable whether Freenet might appeal to millions of people with only rudimentary computer skills and little interest in or patience for cutting-edge technology for its own sake. Currently, the interface is difficult to navigate even for experienced computer users, but the program is still early in the development stages.
All of these issues may not be problems if the courts support Napster's right to exist as it is today. That will rest at least initially on the appeals court decision, which could come any time. Until that moment, the file-trading world is playing a waiting game.