Over the past week, I've been asking any number of lawyers, music fans and digerati if they could think of a real-world equivalent to Gnutella, the MP3-trading software that recently infiltrated the Internet and appears unstoppable.
John Parres, an online music maven who studies the Net for Artists Management Group, offered the best comparison so far.
"This whole thing is like marijuana," he said. "The law says that's bad, you shouldn't be doing that. And yet lots of people are."
It's an accurate point, surely, but that really ain't the half of it.
Gnutella is a tiny program that allows users to trade any kind of computer file, including MP3s, whether or not they have permission to do so. Plug, for instance, Macy Gray's "I Try" (RealAudio excerpt) into its search function, and you instantly get a list of other Gnutella users online from whom you can download the track.
The people using it at any given moment make up what's known as a peer-to-peer network. Unlike the similar and quite popular Napster MP3 trading program, Gnutella uses no hub through which files are routed.
With no single entity running the show, there's no simple way of shutting it down maybe no way at all, short of closing down the Internet itself.
That's what America Online found shortly after Gnutella was released by Nullsoft, an AOL-owned company. The Internet giant removed the Gnutella Web site several hours after it went up, apparently fearful, with good reason, that people might use it to trade copyrighted work.
But in just that short time-span, the genie got out of the bottle, and he isn't going back in.
"You can create a really rad piece of software," Parres said, "and you can have a hundred beta testers help you out, and then try to shut down the Web site from which people get it. But it's gone at that point. It just replicates itself and takes off virally."
You can now download your own free copy of Gnutella from several Web sites. On Tuesday afternoon (March 28), more than 1,400 people were using it to trade songs. That's up by several hundred from the same time Monday. On Thursday it'll probably jump up more.
Record companies were concerned about piracy when MP3s first emerged as Web downloads, but now that Gnutella and Napster are on the scene, who could blame them for running around like chickens with their heads cut off? Online music fans have a vast, reliable and relatively simple system for trading CD- or near-CD-quality copies of music free of charge.
Internet-entertainment analyst Aram Sinnreich says record companies have but one sensible response: "Embrace," he said.
Gnutella, Napster and their cousins to come represent opportunities for music companies to collect information about their customers and to target them much more accurately than they can through radio and advertising, Sinnreich said.
"Record companies need to basically go out there and make a better version of the same product and milk it for all it's worth."
What else can they do? The Recording Industry Association of America has sued Napster, claiming its program contributes to copyright infringement. Bart Lazar, an intellectual-property lawyer in Chicago, said record companies could feasibly sue AOL over Gnutella, though the company immediately renounced the software as a renegade project.
Leaving aside the fact that AOL is planning to merge with RIAA member Time Warner, making such a suit unlikely, what would it accomplish? Perhaps AOL could even join the RIAA as a plaintiff in a suit, and try to hold the chiefs at Nullsoft responsible. So what?
Gnutella is out there and, so far, it shows no signs of doing anything but getting more popular.
For the moment, Napster seems more favored, regularly linking a user with 4,000 or so others.
Give Gnutella time, Parres said. "It's only been a week."
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