The New Napster The Record Industry Has Met its Match
Hal Plotkin, Special to SF Gate
Tuesday, July 10, 2001
If the recording industry thought Napster was a headache, it’s going to get a genuine migraine from the latest version of Gnucleus, a free Windows-based open source software program released last month for the Gnutella file-sharing network.
The recently improved Gnucleus software is one of several clients such as LimeWire and BearShare that run on the Internet’s self-organizing Gnutella network. The software programs combine the shared contents of constantly shifting clusters of about 10,000 or so linked personal computers into searchable interactive archives.
Like the now-defunct Napster, the Gnutella clients make sharing songs over the Internet simple and easy. But some of them are owned by private companies, which could conceivably be shut down should the courts eventually conclude they are facilitating illegal file sharing.
But not Gnucleus. It can’t be put out of business by the record industry or the government, because it’s not a business, it’s just a piece of free software.
The programmer behind Gnucleus has no commercial aspirations. Instead, he says that all he has done is create a new tool for sharing files, one that works without its author exerting any control over it and without him having any knowledge about which files are being shared.
Ironically, the recording industry’s own lawyers have done the most to help push users toward the legally invulnerable Gnutella network, for which the snazzy new Gnucleus software was written.
Last year, the Gnutella file-sharing network was a distant threat and a poor substitute for Napster, mostly because it didn’t have enough users, which in turn made it hard to find many popular songs. But shutting Napster down was like squeezing on one end of a digital sausage. The recording industry simply (and entirely predictably) pushed users toward Gnutella.
Even an entry-level programmer could have told the record execs that file-sharing through a centralized Napster-like service would have been far easier to control than will ever be the case with Gnutella.
As of today, there are already hundreds of thousands of music files available for free on the burgeoning Gnutella network along with all sorts of other media files, including full-length episodes of TV shows such as Seinfeld and The Simpsons, and even one 15-part file purporting to be the latest Star Wars movie.
In recent weeks, in fact, former Napster users have been downloading Gnutella clientsGnutella clients so fast that some of their file-distribution sites have been brought to a crawl.
But there’s one critical difference between Napster and the Gnutella network, over which the new open source Gnucleus software operates.
Gnutella’s decentralized network architecture makes it impossible for the government to shut the service down without changing the basic way the Internet operates or violating long-established constitutional protections against illegal searches and seizures.
Because it can’t be shut down, the new Gnucleus software promises to finally force a day of reckoning for the music industry.
The question now is whether artists will continue to allow people to distribute their material over the Internet without any opportunity for payment or whether they will at long last rise up and demand that their record companies start making those songs available online legally and at reasonable prices.
In the meantime, file sharing is out of the bottle and won’t be stuffed back in.
The fact that Gnucleus is open source and Windows based means it runs on most computers and will be available permanently, says John Marshall, the 18-year-old New Hampshire high school student who led a team of about a half-dozen other contributors who created the program.
“I got tired of what was happening to other file-sharing services,” he says. “I wanted to create something that couldn’t be shut down or taken away.”
Marshall learned computer programming out of a book purchased just two years ago. Soft-spoken and modest, he has resisted making Gnucleus available on the most popular software-download sites, preferring to wait until he has time to make additional improvements.
Nonetheless, he’s already fended off several offers from firms wanting to buy the software for use as an advertising platform, similar to the competing closed-source BearShare Gnutella client, whose advertising practices some users find annoying.
“I’m not going to sell out,” Marshall says flatly. “That’s why it’s open source. There’s no way anyone can own it.”
Despite his obvious talent for programming, Marshall plans to study manufacturing engineering at a New England college in the fall.
“I don’t have any interest in doing computer science,” he says. “I’ve worked for enough computer companies already to know that’s not what I want to do.”
Marshall’s Gnucleus software comes with a few complications. One of the program’s main deficits, at least for now, is an almost complete lack of documentation — in particular, any form of user manual. Marshall says most new Gnucleus users are having pretty good luck just downloading the program and figuring it out for themselves.
That’s easier than it sounds, because the Gnucleus software is remarkably intuitive, particularly for those familiar with the way Napster worked.
When the software is installed and activated, a “connection” screen searches out other online members of the Gnutella network and notes how many files are available for sharing. All users have the option of sharing or not sharing files. Some Gnutella network-software clients also give users the option of locking out the approximately 10 to 20 percent of users, on average, who don’t share anything.
Once a search command is initiated, the software quickly queries all the linked computers and returns a list of those that have a copy of the requested file or files. If directed to do so, the software then cycles through the list and downloads all requested files, moving from computer to computer as necessary until each task is complete.
The software works in the background, giving users the freedom to ignore it. Downloads can sometimes be pretty slow, so many users leave the software up and running 24/7. The program automatically restricts access to just those files each user wants to share.
Marshall says he hopes future versions of the software will support simultaneous downloads of different parts of the same file from different computers. That’s important, in part, because Gnutella clients are usually being scanned constantly for files of interest to other users, which creates a steady stream of bandwidth-hogging data in both directions.
Most Gnutella clients also let users bring up a screen that displays a list in real time of what other users, who are not identified, are looking for.
While it may be possible to shut down the for-profit companies that provide some of the competing Gnutella clients, there’s no clear and easy way to get rid of the Gnutella network itself. The list of files available for sharing is stored and constantly refreshed by each individual computer, not on a centralized server operated by any one company.
Closing down the Gnutella network would require breaking down the door of every person on the network and confiscating their computers. And even that wouldn’t do the trick, because membership in the Gnutella network changes every second as computer users around the globe log in and out. The record industry would need the equivalent of a worldwide strike force.
“You just can’t shut down the whole network,” says Marshall. “If you disconnect some computers, the others will just reconnect to each other. The network re-forms itself. It won’t fall easily.”
The Gnutella network pits two well-established legal rights against each other: the right to protect copyrighted materials and the right of citizens to be secure in their homes from the threat of unreasonable searches and seizures. It will be interesting to see how the courts resolve that conflict.
The clearly established precedent, however, is that a merchant (read: record company) has no right to indiscriminately search homes or personal mail (read: computers and email) for stolen property just because they think someone might have burglarized their store.
It’s possible, of course, that the courts may eventually rule that commercial rights trump civil rights. But if that happens, the country we now know will have ceased to exist.
There is still time, however, even at this late date for the recording industry to at least partially get its digital act together. Public file-sharing services all have one common weakness: authenticating files. Files are not always what they appear to be. Users can go to the trouble of downloading a long music file, for example only to discover it was not correctly labeled (or, in some cases, was maliciously mislabeled).
I’m sure many Internet users would welcome the chance to pay reasonable prices for the music they enjoy, particularly if they are assured of getting the files they want. It’s not hard to imagine, for example, a more enlightened record company eventually making music files available on the Gnutella network along with certificates of authenticity and a little removable electronic header that invites fans to pay 25 cents or so for each song.
Some freeloaders will never pay a dime. But the world has more honest people than thieves. Lots of music fans would gladly pay up but still can’t. Unfortunately, there is little chance that will happen until top record-company executives realize that technology has already turned the Internet into a global jukebox.
It’s a jukebox with considerable untapped potential. Many music lovers would no doubt love more direct contact with their favorite talents, including the opportunity to directly purchase concert tickets in advance or get information about other songs and related products, all of which could put additional money into the hands of artists.
It’s hard to believe that years after the phenomenally popular online-music revolution began, no one is making any money off music downloads yet.
Except, of course, all those lawyers.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.