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As Napster Undergoes Overhaul, Users Seek Music Elsewhere

Alternatives to Napster – file-sharing software like BearShare, Mactella and other Gnutella clones, as well as services like Aimster and OpenNap – are nothing new. But with Napster under court order to screen out copyrighted music, the service’s millions of users finally have a reason to seek out new places to get MP3s.

And with the introduction of BearShare and other new, easy-to-use clones, the decentralized Gnutella network – long considered the most viable alternative to Napster – may be finally ready for its moment in the spotlight.

Napster’s legal vulnerability stems in large part from the way the service works: it uses centralized servers to keep a directory of all the files available from its users at any given time, essentially helping people find the song they’re looking for. But Gnutella is just a decentralized, ever-changing network of people whose software links them directly to other users’ computers.

“You can’t just pull the plug on Gnutella,” Stacey Herron, music analyst for Jupiter Research, said. “You’d have to go after each user individually.”

BearShare’s usage has been growing steadily since its introduction in December, according to creator Vincent Falco, chief technical officer of FreePeers Inc. At the beginning of this year, Falco estimates, between 1,000 and 1,500 people used BearShare each day. Now, that number is closer to 10,000 daily users sharing upwards of 100,000 files.

Aimster – which combines the AOL Instant Messenger service with the ability to search for music among other AIM users as well as from Gnutella and Napster users – relaunched on March 2, the same day Napster announced it would begin screening files. Aimster CEO Johnny Deep claims the service has seen 25,000 – 50,000 new users a day since then.

Herron said those numbers are only likely to increase as Napster filters more content and eventually relaunches as a subscription-based version this summer.

An ongoing MTV.com poll finds almost 50 percent of Napster users saying they’ll seek out other ways to get free music online.

In addition to Gnutella and Aimster, there are hybrid programs such as OpenNap. Like Gnutella, which was originally a product of the America Online subsidiary NullSoft, OpenNap is “open source” software, free for anyone to download and modify. But the various versions of OpenNap link to centralized servers, many of which can be found on the Napigator home page (www.napigator.com).

OpenNap may be next on the RIAA’s hit list. In February, the RIAA sent letters to 50 or so Internet providers asking them to block access to OpenNap, and many complied, according to the association. A spokesperson for the RIAA had no comment about possible action against Aimster, Gnutella or other file-sharing services.

After more than a year of attacking Napster and MP3.com, however, the labels are positioning themselves to take the lead in the digital music race. In October, BMG parent corporation Bertelsmann AG partnered with Napster to create a subscription-based service that would pay royalties. In February, Sony Music and Vivendi Universal announced their plans to release Duet, which would offer both subscription and pay-per-listen options for users to hear those labels’ music. The service also hopes to license music from other labels.

But if people are going to start paying for what they’ve been getting for free, they’re going to expect a lot more, Herron said, in the form of higher quality and an assurance that they’ll actually be able to download the songs they select – no more “timed out” or “failed” messages.

“I don’t know if Napster per se will prosper,” Herron said. “But the way people interact with music has already changed, and we can’t turn back the clock.”

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