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Distributed Networks Make New P2P Services Hard to Track

12 Oct, 2001 By: Holly J. Wagner

Movie studios aren't waiting around for digital movie file-sharing to reach the level of market penetration that music services did before thepowerhouse content providers started filing lawsuits, but the challenge is shaping up as a much more elusive target.

Napster, the service that became a household name after music fans all over the world began sharing MP3 files of prerecorded music, relied on acentral computer to channel user connections. New peer-to-peer (P2P) services targeted in a federal lawsuit filed Oct. 2 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles operate over a distributed network, in which any computer with enough memory and processing powerand the right software can serve as a hub to connect users.

Users download shareware — free software to access the system — and, once it's installed on their computers, they can see and search directories of files available from other users. As long as both ends are connected, one user can download from another.

“When a user types in the title of one of the studio plaintiffs' motion pictures, the system displays a result list showing currently available audiovisual files containing the title of the motion picture in theirname and purporting to contain all or part of the motion picture,” the lawsuit states. “With simple commands, the user can download a file directly from the hard drive of a fellow user who hosts it.”

Many of the titles trading on file-sharing networks are still in theaters, including MGM's Jeepers Creepers, Paramount's The Rat Race and Universal's American Pie 2.

In Napster' heyday, it was not unusual for users with cable and broadband connections to leave their systems open overnight or longer for other users to access.

Most of the major film studios joined the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) in the suit aimed at shutting down file-sharing networks on which users swap film and music files.

The complaint alleges that Nashville-based MusicCity.com, Music CityNetworks,West Indies-based Grokster and Holland-based Consumer Empowerment BV are encouraging users to swap files in violation ofcopyrights and profiting from advertising revenues.

“The ease of use of defendants' network and the massive piracy itfacilitates have rapidly advanced its popularity with potential users,” the complaint alleges. “Defendants have sought to turn their growinguser base into profit through advertising and investment dollars. In short, [they] are building a business based on the daily massiveinfringement that they enable and encourage.”

The plaintiffs seek $150,000 per title and a court order barring further activities to facilitate the file sharing. Spokesmen for MusicCity,Grokster and KaZaa, the defendant services that use Consumer Empowerment's FastTrack software to manage the distributed networks, didnot respond to requests for comment by press time.

The cat is already out of the bag. Internet consultant Webnoize reported a 56% increase in downloads from MusicCity, Kazaa and Groksterduring September, right after students returned to school for the fall semester. Several universities are mulling bandwidth caps because of the demand file-sharing puts on their computer networks. And while legal action tamed the Napster beast, it also woke the sleeping dragon.

“History loves to repeat itself. We've seen the P2P giant Napster torn apart, only to be replaced by another giant, FastTrack. Now, preparing for the worst, if FastTrack is smashed, millions will be scouting foryet another home, with many smaller networks competing for the file-sharing crown,” wrote one poster on slyck.com.

If online bulletin boards are any indication, file sharers are not going to give up without a fight, though theirs is a guerilla battle.

“One major difference between this crisis and the Napster upheaval is the file-sharing community now has one major advantage; a choice. WhenNapster was torn apart, very few refugees knew that other networks existed, or where to get information on them. This time around, we're armed with a much better informed community, ready to switch over to another network if the situation calls for it,” the slyck author notes.

The issue may get more complicated if Microsoft gets into the fray. Microsoft last week sunk $51 million into P2P developer Groove Networks.Although Microsoft has stated its intent to market the technology for business collaboration applications, such backing could reduce thestigma attached to P2P networks and make for a formidable opponent ifMicrosoft opted to join in the defense of the technology.

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