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News feature: Cashing in on Napster

Copycat services quick to exploit pioneer's woes

A Dutch firm named FastTrack is picking up where Napster left off, allowing freewheeling peer-to-peer downloads of copyrighted material and sparking a new global debate over digital copyright protection.

At FastTrack's current growth rate, the company will soon surpass Napster in popularity and users, according to a report issued by researchers at Webnoize. At Napster's peak of popularity, 1.57 million simultaneous users connected to its network. Webnoize expects FastTrack to hit one million simultaneous users by September.

Music is FastTrack's most popular content, but there is much more, including big-name movies. FastTrack's technology also can handle software application file-swapping, although those are the least popular.

FastTrack also differs from Napster by its location outside the US, which makes it more difficult for US-based copyright holders like the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) to stop it.

The RIAA has vowed to work with European copyright holders to thwart FastTrack from becoming a haven for the unauthorised swapping of copyrighted media files. European authorities say they have just begun looking into FastTrack.

Still, the visitors keep coming.

Spreading the swaps
"FastTrack shares files more efficiently and downloads are faster," says Matt Bailey, a researcher with Webnoize and a coauthor of the FastTrack report.

FastTrack currently licenses its network technology and software to US-based MusicCity and to Grokster.com, which is located in the West Indies. Both run free, unrestricted file-swapping networks. FastTrack provides access to its own network through a software client called KaZaa.

Similar to the decentralised file swapping service Gnutella, FastTrack doesn't rely on central servers, making it hard for authorities to stop. But unlike Gnutella, FastTrack has been able to accommodate hundreds of thousands of simultaneous users without bogging down its network.

Webnoize reports in June an average of 225,000 simultaneous users downloaded 370 million files via FastTrack technology. Last week FastTrack had 400,000 simultaneous users, making it twice as popular as Napster and nine times as popular as Gnutella, according to Webnoize.

Members Contribute
FastTrack's network infrastructure works slightly differently from Napster's. FastTrack doesn't host servers that contain master lists of files contained on users' PCs, as Napster did. (On 2 July Napster shuttered operations to reorganise and prepare for the launch of a copyright-friendly version of its service later this year.)

When you log on to the FastTrack network, you are routed by a FastTrack server to what are called SuperNodes that contain lists of user files you can search, connect to, and download. Members automatically host SuperNodes on their PCs when needed - and the number of SuperNodes grows and shrinks relative to demand.

SuperNode computers are clustered by the thousands, so one search for a file may be handled by a hundred PC SuperNodes that intelligently route and distribute requests, according to FastTrack chief executive Niklas Zennstrom.

Zennstrom says the number of users on its network has been doubling each month, from 200,000 in June to 440,000 today - figures even higher than Webnoize's estimates. According to FastTrack, one million files were downloaded from its network last week. It reports 3.5 million copies of its software have been downloaded through its largest customer, MusicCity.

"We don't see ourselves as the next Napster," Zennstrom says. "We see ourselves as powering the next Napster." Even KaZaa isn't the next Napster; FastTrack prefers to license its technology, and offers KaZaa as an operating demo of what it can do. FastTrack maintains that it owns the network and the technology, but doesn't take responsibility for what its licensees do with the goods.

As for the copyright issues, Zennstrom says FastTrack is in discussions with copyright holders like record labels and other businesses that have contacted him, to use FastTrack's technology in fee-based file-sharing services.

"Sure, there are a lot of companies that don't like what we are doing," Zennstrom says. But he says FastTrack has had no formal complaints or lawsuits filed against it since it opened its doors in April 2000.

Under scrutiny
The International Federation for the Phonographic Industry, which represents manufacturers of sound recordings, says it's aware of FastTrack and is looking into the company. Representatives say an initiative to more completely protect digital copyright holders called the European Copyright Directive is about 18 months from implementation.

"It's too early to say what our response will be," says Adrian Strain, IFPI's communications director.

US legal experts that represent the music industry say they are concerned.

"FastTrack is on our radar screen. Right now we're just trying to figure out whether they're in our firing range," said one attorney, who represents songwriters and music publishers, and who requested anonymity.

The RIAA only issued a statement, but the organisation that has silenced Napster is obviously watching.

"Clearly, the rules of the internet road as set down in the Napster case will have to be established worldwide," says Cary Sherman, RIAA senior executive vice president and general counsel. Sherman says the organisation is joining with the IFPI to work with FastTrack in hopes of avoiding litigation.

"It's heartening that FastTrack's chief executive has publicly stated that he wishes to pursue a legitimate business model and negotiate licenses with copyright holders rather than build a business based on copyrighted works they do not own," Sherman writes.

International courts or the WIPO (World Intellectual Property Organization) might tackle digital copyright concerns, notes Aram Sinnreich, senior analyst with Jupiter Media Metrix.

"Being across the pond hardly insulates companies from charges of intellectual property abuse," Sinnreich says. However, he adds, "We are nowhere near drafting US or international laws pertaining to file sharing networks."


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