February 27, 2002 4:05 PM PST

Morpheus looks to Gnutella for help

A glitch this week that locked millions of people out of the most popular file-trading network since Napster's fall is raising new questions about the future of the Net's free-music bonanza.

Beginning early Tuesday, a message on Morpheus--a file-trading service from StreamCast Networks--told visitors to upgrade their software to connect to the network. However, no newer version of the software was available.

Although the nature of the problem remains unclear, the shutdown has led StreamCast to consider dropping its current software. Such a move could create the biggest rift in the file-swapping world since a federal judge effectively shut down Napster last year.

In an interview, StreamCast Chairman Steve Griffin said the company in the next few days plans to release a new version of Morpheus based on Gnutella, an earlier open-source peer-to-peer alternative that has so far trailed in popularity.

The problem may point to deeper trouble for several file-swapping services, which face a copyright-infringement lawsuit from major media companies aimed at shutting them down.

StreamCast (formerly known as MusicCity), Kazaa and Grokster--all of which originally licensed software known as FastTrack--have argued that they have no control over the network of people who trade files using the software they distribute. Analysts say that claim could be hurt by Tuesday's near-total shutdown of the Morpheus network.

"It looks like good news for the record labels," said Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Aram Sinnreich. "It looks like some of these so-called uncentralized, unpoliceable networks are more policeable and more centralized than they seem."

The bulletproof network closes
Since Napster first burst onto the scene, file swapping has emerged as one of the Net's "killer apps," vigorously embraced by millions of consumers in search of free music, video and software. But it has been challenged with equal vigor in the courts by media companies, which fear a vast expansion of piracy that could gut their businesses.

Who's who in file swapping

StreamCast Networks (formerly known as MusicCity): Distributors of the Morpheus software, which talked to Kazaa and Grokster until Tuesday. Being sued by the RIAA and MPAA.

Kazaa: Now owned by Australian Shaman Networks. Shares the same software, known as FastTrack, with Morpheus and Grokster. Being sued by the RIAA and MPAA.

Grokster: Based in the West Indies, the smallest of the three services making up the FastTrack network. Being sued by the RIAA and MPAA.

Napster: The original file-swapping heavyweight. Unrestricted file swapping has been shut down since July. Hoping to launch a subscription service authorized by the major music labels. Still being sued by the RIAA.

RIAA: Recording Industry Association of America. Trade group representing music labels.

MPAA: Motion Picture Association of America. Trade group representing movie studios.

LimeWire: One of the largest distributors of Gnutella-based software.

Gnutella: An open-source peer-to-peer communications protocol. LimeWire, BearShare and others use Gnutella.

The record labels successfully shuttered Napster last year only to see alternatives quickly step in and allow the free-for-all to continue unabated. In a setback for the record labels and Hollywood studios, this new generation of products tapped into "peer-to-peer" technology, which allows individuals to create vast networks that leave copyright holders with no single switch to shut down.

Such pure networks, however, have been hard to assemble. Early versions of Gnutella, for example, were dogged by network problems that made the system all but unusable for large numbers of people.

Distributed as an open-source technology--software that can be freely modified by independent programmers--Gnutella has since inspired derivatives that offer significant improvements, such as LimeWire and BearShare. But none has proven as successful as Kazaa, which recently sold most of its assets to Australia's Sharman Networks, or Morpheus.

By sharing the same technology, Kazaa, Morpheus and Grokster formed a network that rivaled Napster's in size, since people using any one of the three pieces of software could search each other's computers. The Morpheus software appeared to be the most popular of the three, however. According to CNET Download.com, which keeps a count of people downloading the software, Morpheus has been downloaded more than 51 million times.

Kazaa has seen more than 37 million downloads, while Grokster has seen just over 1 million, according to the site. (Download.com is a division of CNET Networks, publisher of News.com.)

Since the beginning, the companies have claimed the network couldn't be shut down because it didn't operate the same kind of central servers that ran the Napster system.

In Napster's file-swapping system, a central switching station linked the millions of file swappers' computers together. In the system used by Kazaa, Morpheus and Grokster, this process was allegedly handled on the fly by the individuals' computers, without company intervention.

But early Tuesday morning, Morpheus users found themselves locked out of this network. Something in the network was telling their software to shut itself down.

StreamCast's Griffin said Wednesday that it wasn't his company's fault. That message was coming from somewhere else in the network--apparently, he says, from computers running a new version of the software distributed by Kazaa earlier this month.

As a software licensee, StreamCast has never seen the inner workings of the file-swapping technology it uses, Griffin said. Nobody contacted him about upgrading to the new version of the software that Kazaa and Grokster are using, and he said he doesn't even know whether the original Dutch creators or the new Australian parent company owns the software.

But StreamCast has a new version of Morpheus nearly set for release. That will be ready in a few days and will run on Gnutella technology, Griffin said. This means that the millions of people who use Kazaa or Grokster will no longer be able to search Morpheus computers, and vice versa.

"It was not our intention to separate the networks," Griffin said. But "I'm not sure how you get back into compatibility with someone that seems to be able to turn you off."

Representatives for Kazaa could not be reached for comment.

Peer-to-peer power play
The move of millions of people onto the Gnutella network would represent a dramatic shift in the peer-to-peer world.

Gnutella has gained substantial press since its creation and release by America Online programmer Justin Frankel two years ago. But despite the efforts of Gnutella developers such as LimeWire and BearShare, the technology has never gained the traction of Napster, Morpheus or Kazaa.

Developers say the technology's early problems with handling large numbers of people have been solved. StreamCast's Griffin said his developers have also worked out the initial troubles in connecting numerous people within Gnutella.

Gnutella developers are watching StreamCast with interest, seeing the changes as a potential boost to their community's size.

"Our whole goal has been to evangelize that Gnutella is good," said Greg Bildson, LimeWire's chief technology officer. "If Gnutella gets bigger, that's a good thing in general."

Other groups are closely watching the skirmishing among the file-swapping companies--particularly the record and movie industries, whose legal case against the services is about to reach a head.

StreamCast is scheduled to meet attorneys for the Record Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America in a Los Angeles federal court March 4, less than a week after Morpheus' shutdown.

The closure of the network is likely to play a role in that case. The record companies and studios have long contended that the companies providing file-swapping services have the ability to control their networks to some degree.

"We have been saying all along that they control the system, and this proves it," RIAA Senior Vice President Matt Oppenheim said in a statement Wednesday.

Analysts say that if StreamCast moves to Gnutella, it could help the record and movie companies keep a lid on file swapping's growth.

"There will always be a new gray-market network somewhere," Jupiter Media Metrix's Sinnreich said. "But it's a good thing for the legitimate industry if every six months people have to find a new (file-swapping) community."

 

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