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One Year Ago: AOL Embarrassed By Free MP3 Music Software

By Rick Cook
Mar 16, 2001 4:06 PM PT

Originally published on March 15, 2000 and brought to you today as a time capsule.

One Year Ago: AOL Embarrassed By Free MP3 Music Software

America Online's acquisition of Time Warner -- and its newly-announced strategy to generate e-commerce revenues with Warner Music -- has scuttled plans by a small AOL subsidiary to introduce a software product designed to distribute MP3-encoded music on the Internet for free.

Nullsoft, a small subsidiary acquired by AOL last year, apparently tossed a hand grenade in the corporate henhouse on Tuesday when it released an open source beta version of a clone of the controversial Napster software for distributing songs in MP3 format over the Web.

Napster software allows users to log on to its servers and make their personal MP3 collections available for download by other users. In December 1999, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) sued Napster "because it launched a service that enables and facilitates piracy of music on an unprecedented scale," according to the RIAA.

Nullsoft, which also created the popular WinAmp MP3 player, named its Napster clone "Gnutella." In posting a beta version of the program, Nullsoft announced that it would spin off a company named Gnullsoft to handle the product.

Pandora's Box?

Since Gnutella was apparently posted under a GPL (open source) license, it will be very difficult for Nullsoft, AOL or anyone else to keep the program from spreading. While the present version, referred to as version 0.48, has some bugs in it, the release of the source code as part of the open license means that programmers all over the world can work on Gnutella to perfect it.

By Wednesday afternoon, the program had been pulled from the Nullsoft Web page, where it had been posted. The AOL subsidiary also issued a statement describing the release of the software as "unauthorized."

Before that event, however, the Web site was filled by users trying to download the beta version -- as word of the product spread quickly through the open source underground.

By Wednesday evening, visits to Gnutella.com showed a blank page with the message: "temporarily down. come back later."

By Thursday morning, everyone from Nullsoft to AOL to Napster was scrambling to control the damage, but the software was already showing up on other Web sites for download.

Corporate Heartburn

An open source clone of Napster is something that would be expected to cause corporate heartburn at AOL headquarters. AOL is in the process of acquiring Time Warner, which owns Warner Music, a major recording company and one of the most vocal critics of Internet music piracy.

The prospect of being sued by the RIAA for developing a Napster clone must have AOL executives scrambling to figure out just how such a scenario could have taken place.

Napster, the program that Gnutella is modeled on, is at ground zero in the war against alleged piracy of music. Its site has become one of the most popular on the Web in the underground music community, attracting hundreds of thousands of college students.

Bandwidth Bust

Napster, in fact, has become so popular on college campuses that it has been accused by college network administrators of sucking up too much bandwidth when students log onto its servers to download MP3 songs. Hence, several campuses have tried to block access to Napster to improve their Internet performance.

At Northwestern University, for example, it was estimated that Napster access was taking up between 20 and 30 percent of the backbone network's 622 megabit per second capacity. A typical song in MP3 format is between five and eight megabytes.

The Gnutella clone supposedly contains a number of features designed to get around college bans on Napster, including a distributed structure and the ability to change the port the program uses.

Own Blocking

Gnutella also competes directly with Napster's own MP3 player. Napster, which has protested university blocking of its software, apparently did some blocking of its own on Wednesday.

About half a dozen messages mentioning Gnutella by name on Napster.com's user forums were unavailable by Thursday morning. However, messages referring to the software that did not mention it by name were still readable Thursday morning, including one that gave a reference to a site for downloads.

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