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The History Of File Sharing

This article should go some way into explaining the birth and collapse of file sharing companies, the effect of record company pressure, and the huge growth of file sharing since Napster. (updated 26/12/2006)

In the beginning

Scour Exchange was understood to give faster searching and downloads, but that it was the first one to fight the record companies over their existing business model. This is what made Napster a household name, and actually made it the huge famous service that it became, as it was now so high profile it was able to attract investors, and most importantly a massive userbase, with 350 million songs being reportedly swapped over Napster at the end of its life.

At this point Napster was basically the be-all and end-all of file sharing, as you could find almost any song you wanted on the service, and although other services like Gnutella and Imesh were around at the time, they could only attract a small fraction of Napster userbase, even though they offered the possibility to share all file types.

After the Death of Napster

As Napster depended on central servers to function, it was brought under control by restrictions imposed by the record companies, the RIAA, and the US courts, and people were unable to find the songs they were after on the service. Initially, this brought about a resurgence of networks such as Imesh and Gnutella, Imesh as it was out of US jurisdiction being based in Israel though it did use centralised servers, and Gnutella being a completely decentralised network, and therefore almost completely impossible to terminate. Additionally, OpenNap, a reverse engineered version of the Napster software run by volunteers on their own computers grew in size. This was the birth of MusicCity, as it was a network of OpenNap servers, just as Soniknap and FlameNap are today.

The Second Coming

Imesh seemed to be the leader after the death of Napster for a short while, although people lacked faith in the company as it was based on a centralised protocol, and thus could be shut down, just as Napster was. Gnutella was found to be too slow for the general public’s taste, and although the network initially grew to double or triple its former 100,000 users, its userbase soon started to fall again. OpenNap was also being targetted by the RIAA at this point, as they wanted to finish Napster in all of its incarnations, an thus MusicCity, which ran the most popular OpenNap service decided to sign up to a new budding network, and produce its own client. FastTrack, Kazaa and Morpheus were born. Although FastTrack was a closed protocol, (ie. not open source), it licensed other companies to create client software with which users could connect with the network, and the network was, and still is, completely decentralized, meaning that it is actually impossible to shut down the network. This axis of power in the file
sharing world now lay firmly on the three pieces of software connected to the FastTrack Network, namely Morpheus, the leader of the pack as it contained no spyware or parasiteware bundled with its software, then Kazaa, which was the software created by the network founders, and Grokster.

Beheading the Beast

Morpheus was the frontrunner on Download.com by quite a way for a long period, until overnight the huge Morpheus userbase was left unable to connect to the FastTrack network. This was, according to FastTrack, because Morpheus had failed to pay their license for using the network. Now this caused two problems, the obvious one for Morpheus, and MusicCity which had become Streamcast Networks, in that they now had no file sharing software, and their
users who could no-longer share files. However, this also showed a weakness of the FastTrack Network, as if the founders could switch off the connection of Morpheus users to the network, they now should also be able to comply with RIAA demands and deny all file sharers who distributed copyrighted files access to the network as well. Thus the RIAA put together a court case with which to sue FastTrack out of existence. This worked, as FastTrack did not have the financial backing to proceed with a court case, and the network was taken over by Sharman Networks, based on an island just off Australia, and thus a long way from America, the home of the RIAA.

Third Time Lucky?

Now, although FastTrack, and Kazaa, still ruled the roost in terms of userbase and thus files shared, new, third generation, file sharing networks were developed, in the form of the MP2P Network (used by Piolet, Blubster and Manolito), the decentralised WinMX Network, G2 (the unnofficial second coming of gnutella created by the Shareaza founder), Neonet (created by the makers of Morpheus) and Overnet (created by the makers of eDonkey and used by the open source eMule) were rapidly growing communiteies, with the founders not distributing spyware and parasiteware with their software, and the networks being truly decentralised.

Unity in Numbers

All these third generation networks have their own positives and negatives, however, new software has become available that manages to connect to more than one network, such as Shareaza, ML-Donkey and the latest version of Morpheus.These applications have the ability to source and search for downloads
over all the networks at the same time, making downloads faster, andnumber of files available greater. Such a situation is great for the user, as not only are Shareaza and ML-Donkey ad-free, but also mean that even if one of the current networks is caused problems for whatever reason, it will not stop the trade of files.

Big Brother

Since Napster the recording industry has been attempting to stop or at least reduce the file sharing networks, first of all by stopping the centralized service, but since the birth of decentralised networks, and the precedent set in law by the Betamax case, showing the networks as not responsible, it is now the user directly that is the target of lawsuits. Currently these legal proceedings have been mostly in America, although lawsuits are on the rise in other countries such as the UK. Nevertheless, these legal proceedings have made people more aware of how easy it is to trace who is sharing what, and so privacy protection measures have been developed. It is strange that the file sharing companies who once bundled spyware with their software, which collected data on their users to show advertisements, are now developing software to stop the RIAA and others doing a similar task. They are simply offering what the consumer demands, as if they don’t, independent software such as peerGuardian is developed which will do the job, and they might loose market share.

The Fruity Alternative

In response to the huge growth of the music download market, a number of companies have tried to sell music over the internet. Although the problem exists of trying to get people to pay for what they could quite easily get for free. This is where Apple has come in with their iPod being the current ‘cool’ accessory, and they have used this positive branding with creating a reasonably priced music download store, offering music from all major labels. Apple has taken the initiative, and been the first to create such a store with loose, and relatively consumer-friendly (not RIAA-friendly), copy protection (although how consumer friendly any DRM can be is debatable), and for that reason, along with a huge and expensive advertising campaign, iTunes has become a very successful venture, and shows the way forward for internet music selling.

iTunes is not the only legal option though, as Napster and utilize a different business model, where users can download as much music as they like per month for a set fee, although if their subscription expires, so does their music. The music is therefore very strongly copy protected (DRM) with both sites using Windows Media, and users having to pay extra to burn their music to CD.

Non-DRM music stores have also grown in popularity over recent years with eMusic and Bleep offering restriction-free mp3s to download for basically the same price as the copy protected music from iTunes or Napster. They don’t generally have the pop-superstars from the major labels for download, but smaller independent labels, such as Domino Records or XL Recordings, which dominate the music industry in many countries outside the US, are beginning to open up their catalogs to these stores.

Something which is still annoying is the price of these download, even from the DRM free store, as you can generally buy the CD album complete with cover art and delivery to your door from shops like Amazon, Play and Insound for basically the same price as the download. A CD has to be manufactured, cover-art printed, and then dispatched all over the globe, and somehow the price is the same as a download which costs under $0.05 to be “manufactured” and “distributed”. Nonetheless, there are also legally dubious companies offering users a way of buying music very cheaply, such as AllofMP3. They exist through a loophole in Russian copyright law, and offer downloads of a massive catalogue in many DRM-free formats (including mp3/ogg/aac/wma/flac), and users pay per megabyte for the download, so lossless formats such as flac cost more than lossy formats such as mp3.

The Odd Kids Next Door

While all of these progressions have been happening, two other pieces of file sharing software have been developed that are more likely to affect the internet in general, Freenet and Bittorrent. Freenet is the ultimate in privacy, as it creates a fully fledged network, more like the internet than a file sharing application, that is almost completely anonymous and untraceable, and although still in early stages is pushing the boundaries of current technology. In contrast, Bittorrent is more easily applicable to current situations as it offers swarm downloading of any file, with the files linked to from trackers, thus making it possible for current websites to offer their downloads through Bittorrent, making them much cheaper to run. In these respects, software that utilzes the Bittorrent protocol such as Azureus and uTorrent have not been the subject of lawsuits as they do have legitimate uses for downloading linux distros and other large media files. Bittorrent clients have also recently implemented distributed hash tables, which reduces the need for centralised trackers.

Bittorrent has grown massively in popularity over the past couple of years, with websites such as Suprnova at the beginning with trackers and sites like The Pirate Bay and Mininova taking the reigns more recently. Bittorrent search engines such as isoHuntand myBittorrent have also become popular destinations for file sharers trying to find both legal and less-than-legal films, television shows, music and applications. The official site from Bram Cohen (Bittorrent.com) is also a bittorrent search engine, although it does have official deals with the entertainment industry.

Social Sharing

With the rising popularity of bittorrent for sharing files, and the web 2.0 idea of adding s social layer to most applications, produects are beginning to be developed which combine file sharing and social recommendation and tagging, such as Tioti (designed for TV sharing) so users can download their favourite shows or music, with other similar shows or artists offered to them to widen their horizons. A new project from the original creators of Kazaa and Skype offers a similar service called the Venice Project.

The Fork of Opportunity

We are, currently, at the fork of a path, where we, the consumer, will decide where this industry is going. Now that there is a not-to-expensive priced legal alternative to downloading music, we can no longer use it as an excuse for downloading music we would have bought. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the file sharing industry will shrink, but there is something to be said for supporting your favourite band, and it will be for our collective conscience to decide.

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