An epic battle is being fought in cyberspace. David versus Goliath. Order versus chaos. E-commerce versus free-commerce. And giant industries versus precocious geeks from Generation Next.
The war is being waged over nifty new software applications that enable people to find and download files directly from each other's computers without using e-mail or the World Wide Web. One such file-sharing program, Napster <www.napster.com>, though still in development, is already being used by millions of people to swap bootleg music files over the Internet.
A more sophisticated file-sharing program, Gnutella, also lets you download bootleg video, pictures, text, spreadsheets, software and other kinds of files. And unlike Napster, Gnutella does not require a big central computer to work, making it as indestructible and ungovernable as the Internet itself. Both Napster and Gnutella also have chat, buddy lists and instant message functions, so users can communicate with each other in real time.
Although Napster and Gnutella are neat applications, both face formidable opposition from powerful and entrenched interests. Napster has been sued for copyright infringement by the Recording Industry Association of America, as well as the heavy metal band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre. Meanwhile, the creators of Gnutella were ordered to stop working on the software by their employer, the world's largest Internet service provider, America Online.
So just who are the evil computer geeks that so threaten the music and communications industries with their insidious file sharing applications?
Napster was invented last year ago by Shawn Fanning, at the time a 19-year-old freshman in computer science at Northeastern University in Boston, whose modest goal it was to make it easier to trade music files over the Internet. After creating Napster for his first computer programming class, he dropped out of school and moved to the Silicon Valley to start Napster.com, which recently got a new chief executive and received $15 million in venture capital. But according to "Bloomberg News," although more than 10 million people have signed up to use Napster, the company is making no money and other firms have been reluctant to invest because of the legal cloud it is under.
Gnutella co-creator Justin Frankel also invented WinAmp, one of the first software tools that could play digital music, and today the most popular music player for Windows. In addition to MP3, which is the format of choice for people who "rip" songs off CDs and put them on the Internet, WinAmp plays more secure digital music formats preferred by record companies because they are harder to copy. Gnutella co-creator Tom Pepper developed SHOUTcast, which enables Internet music fans to broadcast their own Internet radio channels to the world.
Last year America Online decided to use WinAmp and SHOUTcast as the foundation for its effort to distribute music over the Internet, purchasing Frankel and Pepper's company, Nullsoft software, for a cool $100 million. By the way, Pepper is in his 20s, and Frankel created WinAmp four years ago, when he was a 17-year-old high school student in Sedona, Ariz.
Two months ago Frankel and Pepper put Gnutella on their Nullsoft <www.nullsoft.com> Web site, and within 24 hours AOL removed it, calling Gnutella an "unauthorized freelance project." According to the "Washington Post," the action came after Gerald Levin, the chief executive of the world's largest media conglomerate, Time Warner, which is in the process of merging with America Online, called AOL founder Steve Case to complain.
But it was too late. Before the software was taken off the Web site, 10,000 people had downloaded it onto their own computers, creating networks for free file sharing. Other programmers are continuing to develop various versions of Gnutella and make it freely available at Web sites such as "Gnutella" <gnutella.wego.com>. A Java version that works on Apple computers can be found at "Gnutella for Macintosh" <homepage.mac.com/macgnutella>.
While Napster has found a use -- trading bootleg music -- Gnutella is still an application in search of an application. Some people use it to trade recipes. I quickly found clips from the Pam and Tommy Lee sex tapes just by searching for "mov," and was able to download a popular desktop publishing program that costs hundreds of dollars retail, and Stephen King's short story, "Riding the Bullet," which is being distributed over the Internet by e-booksellers for $2.50 a crack. But that's just the tip of the iceberg.
As Marc Andreessen, a co-founder of Netscape Communications (who helped invent the first Web browser, Mosaic, when he was just an undergraduate at the University of Illinois), told the "Post," the real threat to global interests posed by file sharing is that it is a "revolutionary" program that gives power to the people by allowing anyone with a computer to share information with the world. "It changes the Internet in a way that it hasn't changed since the browser," he said.
In other words, file sharing is the next big thing
in cyberspace. And it won't just be used for music piracy, and once we
get broadband, video piracy. With decentralized file sharing, every true
believer, whistle blower, nut case and messiah with a modem wanting to
spread the recipe for atom bombs or LSD, kiddy and kitty porn, Nazi propaganda,
abortion doctor addresses, apocalyptic prophecies, jihad and all the other
unpopular, offensive, seditious, illegal and politically incorrect forms
of speech that no newspaper or Internet service provider hoping to stay
in business would dare publish, will now have a forum. For better and for