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Morpheus Shutdown Shows Plug Can Be Pulled On Peer-To-Peer

If you’ve tried to download a song using Morpheus lately, you probably know that the most popular file-swapping software doesn’t work. Although an operable preview of a new version was made available Saturday, the shuttering of Morpheus on February 26 shattered the commonly held belief that file sharing without the use of a central server couldn’t be stopped.

Software like Morpheus, Kazaa and Grokster was thought to be shielded from the kind of plug-pulling that brought down Napster in July. Unlike Napster – which cataloged its available files on a central server that, if disabled, rendered the program impotent – these applications operate on a peer-to-peer system, meaning users trade files directly, without a server between them.

Even executives at StreamCast Networks, the distributors of Morpheus, believed a blackout was impossible, according to a company spokesperson. The evidence, however, suggests otherwise. Whether it’s a backdoor to the application or a remote bug embedded in the code, somewhere or somehow, there seems to be a way to flip the off switch on peer-to-peer applications too.

A federal judge just might insist such a switch be thrown on Morpheus, Kazaa and Grokster, since all are being sued by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America for copyright infringement, the same charge that brought Napster to a halt. On Monday, the case went before U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Wilson, who scheduled a trial date for September 30. The defense’s position is that their products, like VCRs or photocopiers, have other, legal applications and therefore, the copyright holders should look to prosecute users and not the software itself.

Since February 26, people attempting to run Morpheus software – which has been downloaded more than 51 million times, according to CNET Networks – were confronted with a pop-up message that instructed them to upgrade the application. However, no upgrade was available on the StreamCast Networks Web site. Instead there was a message from StreamCast/Morpheus CEO Steve Griffin, who said the software and its users were under attack.

The reason for the shutdown isn’t completely clear. Theories ranging from competitor sabotage to StreamCast’s inability to pay licensing fees for the FastTrack peer-to-peer… software employed by Morpheus.

The crippling of its competitor wasn’t lost on Kazaa, which posted a note on its Web site a day after the shutdown: “Morpheus users, come on over to our place… you’ll feel quite at home.” Two days later, new Kazaa software made converting from Morpheus as simple as clicking a mouse. The program interface was similar, replacing Morpheus’ blue color scheme with Kazaa’s lime-green one.

StreamCast’s company line says the lockout resulted from a licensing disagreement with Sharman Networks, which offered an upgrade of its FastTrack software to Grokster and Kazaa, but for reasons unknown left Morpheus out of the loop, their spokesperson said.

Denied access to FastTrack, the preview of the new Morpheus uses Gnutella technology – another, albeit less popular, peer-to-peer system. When Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa all operated on FastTrack, users could share files across the platforms. Now that Morpheus uses the Gnutella system, like the file-swapping applications LimeWire and BearShare, its pool of available songs has shrunk.

Although temporarily shaken and perhaps knocked down a peg, Morpheus isn’t showing signs of rolling over yet. CEO Griffin recently announced plans for something of pay-per-play service, in which audio and video files are “wrapped” in code that requires users to execute a task, which could mean anything from paying a fee to viewing an ad, before opening the file. The new service is expected to launch in the next four weeks, a spokesperson said.

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