Napster ruling clouds P2P forum

Monday's appeals court ruling against Napster Inc. cast a shadow over the O'Reilly Peer-to-Peer conference that kicked off Wednesday in San Francisco. While other so-called p-to-p networks are likely to see increased usage with Napster's demise, the ongoing Napster legal battle also could end up setting a precedent that would put alternative file-swapping networks on alert.

P-to-p developers could "pay a large price for innovation," said Richard Koman, managing editor of O'Reilly's P2P.com site. "Any file-sharing service is vulnerable to being put out of business."

Even during the peak of Napster's popularity last year, commercial p-to-p companies faced skepticism. Many companies saw the peer-to-peer concept as nothing more than a bandwidth hog, a security risk and an administrative nightmare. Companies that did rush to get on the p-to-p bandwagon now will have to question whether the technology they are developing or implementing will face legal scrutiny.

As the legal drama surrounding Napster plays out, p-to-p users concerned that the courts will put the kibosh on their favorite Web haunt are likely to turn to Freenet, a network designed to thwart censorship; Espra.net, a new music-swapping application; or Gnutella, a site similar to Napster, to swap their files. Those networks, which don't rely on a centralized database like Napster does, will be harder - if not impossible - to shut down.

Ian Clarke, creator of the Freenet project, said the music industry may have won the battle but lost the war. "The collateral damage has been done" to the labels, Clarke said. "[Napster has] turned their customer base against them, and it's forced them to look at things like the legitimacy of intellectual property."

Napster, for its part, was a no-show at Wednesday's conference, which was sold out. "I think the difficulty I had in getting someone from Napster to speak says something about the chilling effect" the lawsuit has had, said Tim O'Reilly, founder and CEO of online publishing company O'Reilly & Assoc.

Interestingly, conference attendees seemed to want to avoid the subject of Napster altogether. Steve Pugh, senior network engineer at the University of Tennessee, was at first hesitant to reveal his thoughts on Monday's Napster ruling. "I've never had anything against Napster except for the problem with bandwidth consumption," he said, adding that between 40 percent and 60 percent of the school's bandwidth is occupied by students using Napster.

A recent graduate himself, Pugh said he opposes any efforts to monitor content or impose limits and sympathizes with the students who use the free music file-swapping network. But some universities have gotten heat over copyright infringement as a result of heavy Napster use on their campuses, and Pugh said the possibility of legal action is a worry for his school, as well.

Another problem universities face is that all the negative attention Napster has gotten of late could impact other p-to-p applications, even those being put to use for important scientific research such as the human genome project.

"Other p-to-p applications are being used," said Ana Preston, a research consultant at the University of Tennessee. "[The ruling] won't make the problem go away."

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