Is Intellectual Property Safe on the Net?

The rights of musicians and all artists took a direct blow to the chin earlier this month when members of America Online’s Nullsoft music division made it even easier for Web surfers to steal intellectual property.

The “Gnutella” software, which was developed by the same group that created the popular Winamp MP3 player, is a file-sharing tool that lets users trade music via the Internet by tapping into a network of hard drives.

Back From the Dead

According to published reports, AOL immediately cancelled the project after recognizing the software’s full implications.

“The Gnutella software was an unauthorized freelance project and the Web site that allowed access to the software has been taken down,” Josh Felser, general manager of AOL’s spinner and Winamp projects, told Wired.com.

However, the free software lives on at www.gnutella.nerdherd.net.

Latest Entry

The Gnutella program is just the latest entry in the game of MP3 file-sharing. Music lovers have already been using Napster, another controversial program that recently exploded onto the Net, for the same purpose.

The success of Napster inspired the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) to file a lawsuit on behalf of 18 record companies, accusing the startup of being a hotbed of music piracy.

As of this moment, however, the Napster site is still up and running. All users have to do to tap into a huge library of user MP3s is sign on, download the free software and start searching.

The good news is that Napster could go away quickly. If a court rules in the RIAA’s favor, Napster could simply be shut down with the pull of a plug.

By contrast, however, eradicating Gnutella is a hopeless proposition. While Napster is dependent upon a central server, Gnutella has a life of its own. MP3 files can migrate freely throughout the Internet from one PC to another, each capable of accessing all the hard drives the other recognizes. It is already too late to check Gnutella’s spread.

End of Intellectual Property?

In some circles, equating the use of open source software with “community service” has given the theft of intellectual property a sheen of respectability. Ripping off artists has now somehow become politically correct.

In my mind, I might as well go to my local record store and slip a few favorites under my shirt. Stealing is stealing — even if the anonymity of the Internet keeps me from being caught.

Regardless, artists and the record companies are hardly going to sit back while a crowd of cybergeeks aces them out of millions of dollars in proceeds. The true power brokers will develop new distribution methods to safeguard their property — making their products less accessible to those who were willing to pay for it in the first place.

Funny how the freer the Internet gets, the more the everyday consumer gets burned.

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