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Opinion: Napster, Gnutella, and Internet guerrillas
(IDG) -- During the American Revolution, the British army had fits because the colonials refused to fight by the rules. It was like the Marquis of Queensbury caught in a dark alley by gangbangers, the Geneva Convention versus the WWF's Texas Death Match, Anita Bryant singing the national anthem and meeting Bone Thugs N Harmony at The Crossroads.
A similar revolution is taking place on the Internet today. This time, the fight is between the music industry's corporate legal teams and that most ubiquitous group of folk, the ones known as Netizens. It's just as lopsided and mismatched as the American Revolution was. Those pesky dweebs on the Internet are into sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Worse yet, they just don't play fair -- not by the old rules, at least.
Napster (see the excellent column by Nick Petreley on the subject in the Resources section below for more details on this program) drew a lot of attention when it appeared on the scene a few months ago. It sprang from a convergence of technologies that allowed individuals to find, download, and play their favorite musical tracks in the MP3 format. Napster drew instant acclaim from online music fans and almost instant protest from the music industry.
Multimedia to MP3
The current battleground of this revolution within the music industry is the American court system, where the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has brought a series of lawsuits (all futile, so far) against several Internet digital sound players. But the origins of the revolution probably lie in personal computer developments that took place in 1994. That's when the buzzword du jour in the PC world was multimedia.
One of the things contributing to the ability of those amazing (for 1994) machines to play full-motion video and sound recordings was an open standard called MPEG (which stands for moving pictures experts group) that defined efficient methods for the compression and storage of images and sound. From MPEG came MP1, MP2, and, most recently, MP3, all of which are formats for recording and playing back digital sound files.
It wasn't long before software -- commercial, shareware, and freeware -- began to appear with which you could record sound from your CD-ROM and store it on your hard drive in MP3 format. Best of all, the quality of sound recorded as an MP3 file was almost as good as a CD. That rocked. It also constituted the first piece of the puzzle we're calling the revolution today.
Next came the colonization of the Internet, and with it that great communal grazing field for Netizens called IRC, or Internet Relay Chat. With all those people visiting each other online, many of whom had multimedia machines that could play tunes while their owners chatted, the revolution had to happen -- and it did. The next thing you knew, FTP sites -- some permanent, some transient and hosted in IRC channels -- began to spring up. People flocked to IRC channels where they could find the music (or whatever else they were looking for) of their choice.
It wasn't much later that the first shots were fired. Lawsuits began to appear. Search engines were the first to be targeted, either for creating storehouses of music in the MP3 format or for simply pointing toward sites that contained the offending files.
The next target was Diamond Multimedia, which introduced a portable MP3 player called Rio and found itself sued by the RIAA for violating the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act (AHRA). The AHRA was designed to protect the music industry from piracy at home. The RIAA struck out on this one, however. A federal appeals court decided last June that the Rio didn't fit the definition of a home recording device sed down by the AHRA.
The music industry then began to move against companies like MP3.com and Napster. MP3.com is a site that allows customers to listen to their CDs over the Internet. Other sites do much the same thing but require you to upload the files yourself. MP3.com recorded and stored nearly 80,000 CDs on its site and let customers listen to them without the hassle of uploading or downloading -- once the listener had proved that he or she legally owned a copy of the CD, that is. A judge upheld the RIAA's suit earlier this month, ruling that MP3.com was guilty of copyright infringement.
By this time, however, the rebels, those unruly Netizens who liked their music as much as they liked being online, began to fight back. And they used the only weapon at their command: new technology.
Up jumped Napster, a cool way to trade MP3s and chat with others while doing it. Nick Petreley discussed Napster fairly thoroughly in his aforementioned recent column, so I won't delve very deeply into it here. Suffice it to say that Napster attempted to avoid the legal headaches faced by MP3.com by connecting users to each other to transfer files, rather than storing the file itself on a Napster-owned central server. Any kind of file, not just MP3s, could be exchanged with Napster.
Unfortunately, these changes didn't slow down the lawyers. The RIAA sued Napster last December. Universities around the country began regulating the use of Napster by students connecting to the Internet through school networks. Metallica filed suit, and other artists, like Dr. Dre, threatened to do the same. Napster claims that, since it doesn't store the files, it is not responsible for any illegal pirating that occurs, but the music industry insists that the company is liable for contributory copyright infringement.
As of this writing, Metallica has announced that it has monitored Napster users and has compiled a list of over 300,000 individuals who have "illegally shared" its music online. The band is delivering the list of names to Napster and is asking it to block those people's access to the service.
That brings us to where we are today, in the land of the latest mutant strain of irascible software, a program called Gnutella. Like Napster, Gnutella's capabilities are not limited to the exchange of MP3 files; it can transfer files of every type, in text or binary format, including word processing documents, plain text, video, sound, or executables. Also like Napster, Gnutella does not store files in a central location.
Unlike Napster, however, there is no middleman involved in Gnutella's use at all. Networks form when one Gnutella user enters the IP address of another system running Gnutella. The user becomes an instant peer on a peer-to-peer network that can span thousands of systems around the globe. Gnutella is definitely guerrilla warfare. There is no supply base, no central headquarters, no chain of command. The network exists in anarchy, shaping and reforming constantly as users log on and log off. Each user makes as many or few of her own files as she wishes available for other users connected to the network to search through and retrieve.
While Napster and MP3.com put up targets for the record industry to shoot at in the form of legally defined corporate entities, Gnutella hides in plain sight. Originally developed by Nullsoft, a subsidiary of AOL, it was released as open source and has spread like wildfire on the Internet. AOL has since forced Nullsoft to abandon the project, but it was too late to kill it. Today there are cloned versions of the original program for almost every platform. If you use Linux to surf the Net (and who doesn't these days?) you have your choice of Gnubile, net::Gnutella, DNet, GNucleus, Gtk-gnutella, and Gnut.
I downloaded the latest build (.31) of Gnubile and gave it a spin to see what all the fuss was about. The first thing I noticed was the names of the authors: Spencer Kimball and Gene Kan. Could these be the Spencer Kimball and the Gene Kan from the GIMP project? Yes, they are. They are helping to put a Linux clone of Gnutella together, and they've done a pretty good job at it, too.
As I noted above, Gnutella is not just about MP3. It's about sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Well, OK, I'm not really sure about the drugs; I did a few searches using amphetamine and meth as search terms and came up with very little.
My guess, based on watching the Active Search Monitor, a feature that scrolls the search requests in real time, is that Gnutella is being used primarily for music and porn, with software a distant third. The image below shows the contents of a typical Active Search Monitor scroll list.
There has been some recent public criticism of Gnutella because it might give child pornography a place to thrive. I am happy to report, however, that those who traffic in child porn will be no safer using Gnutella than they are anywhere else. That's because the users are not anonymous.
Gnutella requires IP addresses in order to make a connection between a site with a file and a site that wants a file. The host IP address is shown as part of the search results in Gnubile, and probably in other clones as well. Ergo, anyone offering files with names that identify the files as child porn is bound to attract the attention of the authorities. The image below shows the results of a search done on Graceland.
I wonder how the RIAA lawyers will attack Gnutella. It is really only a more sophisticated expression of the kind of file swapping that has been going on for years on IRC and elsewhere. There are no easy targets, like Napster and MP3.com, for them to drag into court. They may be able to identify 300,000 users by doing searches as described above and then going through the enormous time, expense, and effort of translating the IP addresses into people. That would leave them with a large, very expensive stack of names. How much more would it cost them to sue that many people?
I'm not justifying piracy of the music industry's (or anybody else's) intellectual property. I just don't see how it can be stopped. Do you? Let me know if you see a way to put the cat back in the bag without destroying the Internet.
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