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Gnutella finds friends among MP3 enthusiasts
(CNN) -- As expected, a souped-up way to transfer music between users has found a home with programmers and enthusiasts.
Gnutella, similar to its spiritual ancestor Napster, is a program that resides on a user's machine and catalogs MP3 music files. The files can be freely traded among Gnutella users.
Nullsoft, noted for software MP3 players Spinner and WinAmp, created the program. The company released a beta on March 14, allowing users to download and try out an unfinished version of the program. That announcement was quickly trumpeted on Slashdot, a technology forum.
By the time most users got to the site, they found that the test had been limited to the first 1,000 users. Even with such a small distribution, many users passed around the copies and found more through Nullsoft developers on Internet Relay Chat.
Nullsoft is owned by America Online. When AOL found out about the program, it was deemed an "unauthorized freelance project," said a spokesperson speaking for Spinner/WinAmp General Manager Josh Felser, and the site was shut down permanently. Nullsoft did not respond to requests for comment.
AOL has announced a planned merger with Time Warner, the parent company of both Warner Music and CNN.com. The record company has been one of the loudest critics of Napster and MP3 piracy as a whole.
What makes Gnutella special?
But it was too late.
University administrators concerned about excessive bandwidth use have successfully blocked Napster. But unlike Napster, Gnutella doesn't have to connect to central servers in order to share files and communicate with other people running the client. Gnutella's client and server are one in the same, and users are free to connect to any of the individuals running the Gnutella software.
This is analogous to how two popular Instant Messaging programs work. AOL Instant Messenger uses central servers, but ICQ -- also owned by AOL -- connects directly client-to-client and is therefore more powerful and can directly transfer files quickly. However, many system administrators see ICQ as more of a security risk. They can leave one port open for AOL use, but ICQ makes many connections to many different servers. Therefore, ICQ doesn't function through many corporate firewalls.
This feature made it incredibly delicious to programmers, who could pick up the ball where Nullsoft left off and expand on the network. They reverse-engineered the client and the protocol, revealing the secrets of the software without needing the original source code in hand. Now it's open-source, with the developers freely trading ideas.
'The cat has kittens'
"In a nutshell, the cat has been let out of the bag and had kittens," says Ian Hall-Beyer, a self-proclaimed "networking geek" who administrates Gnutella's new home at gnutella.nerdherd.net. "There are probably a few dozen folks actively working on clones that use the protocol, as well as a few working to establish a new protocol, using Gnutella as a proof of concept."
The new Gnutella developers place the current use between 1,000 and 1,500, compared to just 100 a week ago. Hall-Beyer says that during a recent session, he had access to more than 700 gigabytes of files, all available to him to download.
The development is exploding, with new versions of the program popping up all the time. Different versions are being developed in all sorts of languages: C++, Perl, Visual Basic, even the Computer Science 101 standby Pascal.
In addition to making the clients and protocol more robust, the developers plan to expand it outside the business of just transferring MP3s, movies and the like. Their hope is to make it capable of sharing any file between any Gnutella-equipped computer.
This may seem remarkably like Wrapster, the addition to Napster that allows users to share all sorts of files.
Gnutella developers appreciate that their utility has created a huge piracy concern, but also think it could be used in a business or academic atmosphere.
The software would be used as a sort of next-generation LAN or server atmosphere, with "not just a cluster of FTP servers sitting in a room, but a distributed network for accessing legitimate software with no single point of failure," says Bryan Mayland, another Gnutella developer who has a "real job" as a software engineer for a Florida company.
Mayland has also created a Web-only interface for Gnutella. By accessing a single site, users can see and download all the files available on the Gnutella network. Not only is it user-friendly, but users don't even have to share their own files in order to get others. As with many software projects, Mayland did it on a lark.
"Doing a Web-based Gnutella client seemed like a challenge at the time," he says. "I'm slightly disappointed that I did it now, (because) it allows people to 'take a penny' without the opportunity to 'leave a penny.'"
The legal question
Despite their intentions, both Mayland and Hall-Beyer appreciate that Gnutella and Napster users are taking many pennies without paying for them, but downplay the seriousness of MP3 piracy. Both programmers cite reports that music sales rose last year, and say that many users just download MP3s to "try out" music before considering whether to buy the CD.
Yet, they both admit to pirating MP3s, though they say they only take MP3s of recordings for which they can't find the CDs.
"About a quarter of my collection, which is close to four gigs, is illegitimate," says Mayland. "Most of that are rarities I can't find anywhere though, like copies of the BBC Radio 'Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy,' and out-of-production CDs."
To them, MP3s are a way to get music on their own terms, as well as support indie artists.
"Several of the independent artists, as well as some of the well-known ones," says Hall-Beyer, "have been using MP3 as a way to get their music out without having to deal with the iron fisted recording companies."
'Golden age' of piracy
The Recording Industry Association of America, as can be expected, doesn't approve. It has actively fought the rise of Napster, and a representative says "we know about Gnutella." The record company industry group declined to comment on any other points in this article.
On its Web site, however, the RIAA does quote some music professionals who have harsh words for Napster. Rapper Sean "Puffy" Combs is quoted as saying Napster constitutes "abuse," and the agent for Hootie & the Blowfish says Napster "makes us sick."
The RIAA has no announced plans to deal with Gnutella now, but its aggressive actions against Napster make Gnutella a likely target for legal action. This doesn't worry Gnutella developers.
"MP3 and video piracy are in a golden age right now, which promises to get even better as higher speed Internet connections become more widespread," Mayland says. "Eventually, courts will side with big businesses and make sharing and perhaps even owning certain media streams illegal.
"However, I think that technology will always stay half a step in front of the legal system. There are enough talented programmers with time on their hands to invent new methods of sharing media."
Opinion: How record companies could embrace Napster and maintain profits
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