Mention the word Napster and most people under about 30 will mutter
'free music' with a glint in their eye. Others may have read about the
bloody and headline-grabbing legal battle that is currently taking place
between Napster and some of the music industry's giants, including
Metallica and hip-hop rapper Dr Dre, who are represented by the powerful
Recording Industry Association of America.
But what exactly is Napster and the new generation of 'Napster
And why are the music, film and media industries in such a flap? Looking
more widely, what are the implications of all this for public relations
To backtrack several paces, Napster was created when a 19-year-old
American college dropout called Shawn Fanning was looking for a better
way to find and download music over the internet. The piece of software
he developed allows a user to link up to all the other PCs that are
running Napster and are connected to the internet at that moment.
Napster looks through all the hard drives of these PCs, tells you what
is on offer and allows you to download a song from someone else's
Importantly, other Napster users can access your hard drive for songs
too - but they can only get what you want to make available. In this
model, all the computers using Napster are effectively servers at the
same time as they're all users.
Napster is the most famous - some would say infamous - of the
file-swapping technologies around at the moment, which make the rampant
exchange of pirated material a question of a few mouse clicks.
But Napster's younger siblings are emerging rapidly and some can do much
more than simply allow users to get copies of songs and CDs for
The other file-sharing program on people's lips is Gnutella, which was
created within Nullsoft, the company behind the Winamp MP3 player.
Although Gnutella was released for a very short time only, copies were
made and - like Napster - there are numerous Gnutella clones
With no central directory, Gnutella is the first point-to-point network
that changes constantly and has no kind of overall organisation.
Yet another file-sharing service, Aimster, is trying to address one of
the main criticisms of file sharing - that some people just take and
never give back. The objective behind Aimster is to create private
file-sharing communities so that free-riders cannot hide behind
anonymity. It combines Gnutella with America Online's Instant Messager
(AIM), which allows online 'buddies' to exchange messages. Aimster users
can only share files with people on their AIM 'buddy lists'.
This kind of 'peer-to-peer' (P2P) file sharing - computer jargon for
people trading files with each other - seems to be unstoppable,
according to MP3.com president Michael Robertson. 'The genie is not only
out of the bottle, the bottle has been dropped and broken,' he says.
And that genie is not just music mad. As US media and technology firm
Cherry Lane Digital has pointed out, file sharing is not simply about
downloading the latest single from Britney Spears or Cliff Richard, but
includes the rampant exchange of videos, films, books and documents. The
flurry of file-sharing clones has split internet watchers into two
camps: those who think this is the most radical new technology since the
introduction of web browsers and those who believe that intellectual
property rights are under a fundamental threat.
On the issue of copyright violation, Text 100 group vice-president and
chief technology officer Deryck Jones is forceful.
'I would agree with those who see this as a violation of the author's
intellectual property rights,' he says. 'These sites are getting around
the rights of the authors to benefit financially from their work. If
this is permitted, it will have serious implications for intellectual
property rights within any industry and their accessibility via creative
applications of technology.'
Jones stresses that copyright laws were created to protect the
intellectual property rights of creators. 'I believe those rights need
to be preserved and protected,' he says. 'Anything less could seriously
and negatively impact on anyone trading in intellectual property -
regardless of the industry.'
Lewis PR head of creative services Nick Leonard is also wary about the
legal implications. 'Although Napster remains an effective way of
transferring content, there are other ways of doing this - so the same
principles need to apply if it's to take off in other industries,' he
says. 'Fast, free access to information and files almost inevitably
leads us on to shaky legal ground.'
Along with these legal question marks, there are also concerns that
companies will have to invest in broader bandwidth machines to cope with
the information flow.
Tangozebra PR manager Laura Outhart says such worries are unfounded.
'The bandwidth is only needed if people want to share heavy files such
as video,' she says. 'Until then, it will work in the same way as the
web does now, perhaps even a little faster as it's more of a file
transfer protocol operation than downloading files from a web site.'
It looks as though file sharing could change the way people search the
web for information and, if we are to believe Netscape Communications,
Gnutella 'changes the internet in a way that it hasn't changed since the
Leonard argues that the internet and communications technologies in
general are leading us towards a more open environment for the sharing
'Whatever you need or want to do you can bet that somebody, somewhere
has been there and done that,' he says. 'The only problem is finding
them - and that's where these services come in.'
Peer-to-peer file sharing represents a fast, cost-effective method of
exchanging files and, although the main publicity has surrounded the -
predominantly illegal - exchange of music and software, there is no
doubt that the potential exists for similar procedures based around
content, according to Leonard. 'The startled and aggressive reaction of
the music industry proves that this really is a groundbreaking
technology - and there's no doubt it could change the face of the
entertainment industry forever,' he says. 'There are many technologies,
of course, that could be used by the communications industry to improve
how it interacts with its public - but they are grossly under-used.
'How many companies or agencies can claim that they religiously monitor
or participate in news groups or chat rooms? How many look beyond
traditional media to dedicated net relations campaigns? Certainly not as
many as should be doing this.'
Leonard believes that, although peer-to-peer file sharing presents a way
of providing access to information using new media, so do e-mail, video
streaming and the web. And there's nothing to prove that Napster-like
software is likely to replace or supplement these emerging
communications technologies in the business environment - yet.
'It's a case of horses for courses,' he says. 'What works in that
industry won't necessarily make an effective crossover to the
communications sector. The application must be right and harnessed
effectively to achieve the required end.'
So far as GBC associate director Neil Vose is concerned, Napster and its
ilk are a positive thing for the public relations industry.
'I think it is an opportunity rather than a threat,' says Vose, who
heads the internet/e-commerce teams at GBC.
Vose says Napster and other American services have created a surge of
interest in the UK for downloaded music and, if something similar is
launched over here, there will be a tremendous surge of demand.
For public relations companies with music-related clients - GBC works
for WHSmith.co.uk, for example - music sales could be boosted for big
branded names with an effective e-commerce strategy in place. The whole
process of buying music, as well as downloading free stuff, has also
'People have got used to going to Amazon and paying pounds 10 for a CD,
which they get in a few days' time,' Vose argues.
On a wider level, Vose thinks file sharing could help the communications
industry in the same way as viral marketing.
'It's like a good joke that you hear,' he says. 'You pass it on so it
cascades down. As long as it is not illegal, anything that gets people
talking has got to be good.'
The only real challenge would be if companies think they are able to
spread the word so effectively that they are able to bypass public
relations entirely, says Vose. But he is certain that companies will
always need consultants to conceptualise the development of viral
It is up to 'clicks and mortar' retailers such as WHSmith.co.uk, he
says, to show the value of their offerings. Although the Napster deal is
free, it only offers a limited choice of products.
Biss Lancaster consumer board director Fiona Noble stresses that the
onus will be on the public relations industry to change with the times
in a bid to exploit the opportunities created by these new sorts of
'This is changing the dynamics of PR,' says Noble. 'Up to now the
communications industry has been using a number of direct routes, such
as the media, direct contact, sponsorship/events and word of mouth.
'These were very clear channels that were reasonably predictable,' she
adds. 'Peer-to-peer means that people are getting together in
communities and we need to find out how best we can exploit that. It's
not about selling but about how we can tap into this new group, how we
can join the party.'
A number of companies are already experimenting with one-to-one
messaging as a new communications tool but this is all very new, warns
Noble. 'None of us can say we're experts,' she adds.
The flip-side of this huge opportunity, however, is the fact that it is
more difficult to control and dictate the messages that are getting
'It's about the consumer or customer being more able to call the shots
and access information,' Noble says. 'It will be more difficult for us
to shape and influence content and discussion.'
Noble does not agree with the suggestion that the public relations
industry will be sidelined by technological advances, but does believe
that it will have to evolve.
'Particular techniques were in use between ten and 30 years ago,' she
says. 'It is a much broader church now and the avenues we use are very
Company Care director Kevin Taylor also refutes the suggestion that the
core skills of public relations are under threat. 'What do we sell?
Writing and presenting information. The three Cs - communicating
clients' capability,' he says. 'File sharing may be another tool to help
us use our core skills but those skills don't change.'
Outhart is another who insists that PR skills will be even more crucial
in the new technological world.
'In an environment of information overload it is likely that different
skills will be at a premium and a PR practitioner who can navigate
through and scrutinise the quality of information will still be very
valuable to clients,' she says.
Outhart also warns that there is no guarantee that Gnutella or similar
programs will deliver quality information. PR firms should still enjoy
access to more advanced and reliable routes of information.
'Information being available doesn't amount to making it interesting,
newsworthy or sought after,' she adds. 'PR firms can still play a vital
role in feeding the right information to the right sources.'
One of the main implications for the communications industry, says
Outhart, is that 'the democratisation of information in general has the
potential to change the industry from one based on a top-down flow of
information to one based a more open form of dialogue'.
Medialink webcasting consultant Glenn Dougal regards information-sharing
technologies such as Napster as a 'wake-up call for PR'.
'Napster and Gnutella have certainly caused waves in internet circles
over the past few months,' he says. 'As I see it, these organisations
are a continual reminder to practitioners about how information-sharing
technology is revolutionising communication tools.'
Dougal says this shows that 'millions and millions of people' are hungry
for multimedia content. Once PRs have understood who their target
audiences are and what they watch, read or listen to, content must be
created to fit this bill. 'It will allow PRs to get to their target
markets and talk to those communities without having to go through a
newspaper editor or a web editor,' he says.
Dougal also believes that campaigning and other PR-related activities
could undergo a mighty shake-up as a result; and a multimedia approach
will be demanded increasingly by clients. 'PR on the internet is no
longer just about text,' says Dougal.
'It is about video, speech and music. PRs need to determine how to
define their audiences using these media. Choosing a theme song for your
campaign that is freely available on the internet may be integral to
Mahseer principal consultant Lucy Saunders echoes Dougal's cry. 'PR,
marketing and advertising will always find ways to use new means of
communicating,' she says. 'With more than 30 versions of Gnutella
already out there, and more than 20 million users claimed by Napster,
this new technology could be a communications gold mine - or a nightmare
if it cannot be tamed.'
Saunders says the key will be finding ways to get users to come to you
because, as file sharing is carried out by request, users will only get
your message if they ask for it.
There are dangers too. 'Crystal ball-gazers probably see a refined
technology that permits two-way traffic, but that may cause the system
to implode - too much junk mail via the new technology will put users
off,' adds Saunders.
In the end, what you do with the information matters as much as the
Simply being able to access vast numbers of files does not make you any
wiser. And users of the new technology only get the information they ask
for. PR will be crucial while the new technology shakes down, especially
in terms of confidence building and damage limitation.
What must not be forgotten in the middle of the P2P frenzy is that many
audiences are still beyond the reach of the internet. If you hold a
party and nobody comes, it doesn't matter how well you've decorated your
'NAPSTER ON STEROIDS' - HOW GNUTELLA ACTUALLY WORKS
One description of Gnutella - 'Napster on steroids' - encapsulates the
speed and strength of this new program, which looks set to run and
With Napster, users simply download the software onto their hard drives
and then register with the central Napster server, which records the
Internet Protocol (IP) address of their computers and the names of the
local folders where shared music is stored.
The content of these folders is then catalogued in the central Napster
database, where other members can search when they're looking for a
particular artist or track. If a user finds a file they want on a
computer connected to the network, Napster transfers the file.
The canny difference with Gnutella is that it allows searching and file
sharing without a Napster-like central database, which means that there
is no one to sue if documents are pirated.
Computers belonging to the Gnutella network effectively act as both
clients and servers.
Say Carole wants to join: she downloads the Gnutella software and
decides which local folders she wants other users to have access to.
Before joining the network, Carole has to obtain the IP address of
another Gnutella user (Paul) who is connected to the internet. Once that
link is made, Gnutella can search Paul's folders using search terms
supplied by Carole.
Gnutella then passes Carole's search terms to other Gnutella users who
are linked to Paul and all the matches are forwarded to Carole's
At one level, Gnutella can be compared to a sophisticated and targeted
search engine. Gnutella developer Gene Kan says that the software goes
beyond simple file sharing to allow the 'distributed processing of
Gnutella and its ilk offer a new method of distributing information,
moving away from the centralised, expensive system offered by most of
the web. Another key difference between Napster and Gnutella is that
with the latter you can share all sorts of files. With Napster, the
focus is on MP3 music files.
Now the genie is out of the bottle, forcing it back in is going to prove
difficult. Napster boasts more than 20 million users worldwide - a
remarkable figure for a company founded in May last year.
Around 35 per cent of Americans have downloaded or listened to MP3
tracks and a recent PC Data Online survey suggests that 25 per cent of
internet users will continue to use P2P technology, even if it is
declared a 'form of piracy'. Gnutella's own success story is more tricky
to assess as it is, by its very nature, uncontrollable.
VOICE PORTALS COULD MAKE THE INTERNET A PART OF EVERYDAY LIFE
Voice portal services that have sprung up recently, such as BeVocal,
allow users to access up-to-the minute information on a range of
subjects via a phone link.
At the moment the emphasis is on weather reports and share prices but
there is scope for a lot more. For example, callers can use another
voice portal service such as Tellme to find a restaurant or hear a
review. By dialling the service, saying 'connect me' and then a key word
such as 'traffic', callers have immediate access to the information.
'Until now, the internet could be used only by someone sitting in front
of a personal computer, slowing its mass adoption and limiting its
relevance to everyday situations,' says Tellme chief executive Mike
McCue. 'Adapting the internet to the telephone changes all that. Tellme
lets anyone with a telephone stay informed and connected wherever they
are, making the internet a part of everyday life.' Text 100 group
vice-president Deryck Jones adds: 'This technology offers very
interesting possibilities. The real issue is always relevancy, accuracy
and timeliness of information. Exploitation of the technology depends on
how easy it can be delivered to the user of information. Is it an
opportunity or threat? I guess that depends on an organisation's ability
to leverage the technology - if you can, it's an opportunity. If you
can't, it could be a threat'.
Mahseer principal consultant Lucy Saunders says: 'New ways to
communicate will always be an opportunity, ignored at your peril.'
COPYRIGHT CASES WILL BE COMPLEX
California-based Napster found itself in legal hot water when the mighty
Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) decided that the
controversial music swapping service had infringed copyright rules.
It is dragging Napster through the courts in a bid to kill it off.
Initially it urged a US District Judge to slap a temporary injunction on
Napster that would shut it down completely until a trial. Napster won a
stay of execution, but it is now trying to reverse the ruling.
The RIAA has accused Napster of 'vicarious and contributory' copyright
infringement. But the Napster team insists that, far from hurting the
music industry, the number of CDs being bought has actually risen.
As PRWeek went to press, 20 groups from the movie, music, software,
publishing and sports industries had just asked a federal appeals court
to reaffirm the decision to block Napster's service. Calling the group
'the backbone of America's creative community', Motion Picture
Association of America president Jack Valenti said Napster's service
amounts to 'the theft of copyrighted materials'.
Lewis PR head of creative services Nick Leonard says: 'The survival of
businesses such as Napster appears to be dependent on bona fide legal
uses for their software/services to be proven in court. Like the video
recorder (which also has illegal uses), Napster's defence will probably
centre on placing the burden of staying within the law on the end
But the current legal battle could have repercussions for the rising
number of other file-swapping services, which could pose an even greater
threat. In the case of Gnutella, whose directories are not stored on a
central server but on users' individual hard drives, who would the RIAA
- or anybody else - sue? What central clearing house could it shut
Gnutella's web site boasts that it can 'withstand a band of hungry
lawyers', arguing that Gnutella is simply a protocol, freely accessible
'There is no company to sue,' it claims. 'No one entity is really
responsible for Gnutella.'
In addition, Gnutella is not a music-piracy tool but a technology.
'Gnutella will be here tomorrow. It is absolutely unstoppable.' That
should worry the lawyers.
THE VIEW FROM GNUTELLA'S DEVELOPER
PR Week UK e-mailed Gnotella with some key questions about the new
What are the opportunities created by file sharing for companies?
For example, will it facilitate the easier sharing of databases and
Gene Kan: The opportunities are immense and are still being realised as
we speak. Yes, it is definitely easier to share files but, more
importantly, it will uncover files currently out of the reach of search
engine technology. (Please note that Gnutella is not a company but an
open-source technology. The company is Infrasearch, also known as
GoneSilent as it is currently in stealth mode.)
What does the advance in Gnutella mean for hardware? Will it be more
expensive for companies?
The majority of Gnutella users are individuals, not companies. But
within a corporate scenario it will not necessarily be more expensive;
instead, it is a more effective way for companies to distribute and
share information in the way they want and in a format that makes
business sense to them.
Are there security risks involved - people having access to your hard
drives, for example?
Any time you download software, or even exchange email, there is
In light of the current legal wrangle over copyright with Napster, do
you think Gnutella would be treated differently?
Unlike Napster, Gnutella is not a centralised system and, as such, there
is no company to sue.
What are the next technological advances in peer-to-peer file sharing?
What, apart from music, film and books/documents will you be able to
Any kind of electronic file.
Could Gnutella help the likes of public relations firms or will it
simply provide the means to bypass them altogether?
Gnutella could help PR firms and reporters. For example, reporters would
be able to distribute their stories in real time. Another example: a
reporter could extend a query for more information to complete a
specific story; in this case, PR folks will be able to respond with
relevant, timely information.
P2P does not eliminate the content providers; instead, it allows
dynamic, more intelligent and easier information exchange among multiple
MIXED FEELINGS ON THE SECURITY IMPLICATIONS
Some of these file-sharing programs are so crude and unpolished that the
issue of security has inevitably reared its head.
Most of the services, including Gnutella, are promiscuous by nature:
literally everything is up for grabs including pornography, first-run
movies and graphic design software. What started as straightforward but
possibly illegal MP3 trading has turned into a free-for-all, with a
whole range of intellectual property now taking centre-stage.
GBC associate director Neil Vose feels there will be few problems. 'When
online banking was launched it was an issue, but now both the corporate
world and consumers understand security.'
Biss Lancaster disagrees, insisting that 'security will be a major
Company Care is also concerned about the security risks. Director Kevin
Taylor says the company holds a lot of confidential client information
so 'user-definable access' is essential to ensure that Kodak's files are
kept separate from Motorola's, for example.
'Once security is addressed, there will be a lot of potential to file
sharing,' says Taylor.
The internet is already vulnerable, according to Mahseer principal
consultant Lucy Saunders. 'If P2P becomes the internet of tomorrow, the
fear of outsiders accessing your hard drive will have to be dealt with.
You can choose to participate or not, depending on how confident you are
in security technologies.
You can change the way you manage your files, keeping personal
information on diskettes instead of on your hard drive. A business could
have one computer just for file sharing and choose what can be accessed
Text 100 group vice-president Deryck Jones says: 'This has serious
security implications. As it is, most security violations occur from
within. This would redefine what 'within' really means.'
Some of the newer kids on the block have taken matters into their own
hands. The makers of one program, iMesh, claim it has security
Stringent measures mean that you can specify the exact folder or folders
you will allow other iMesh users to access, thereby preventing anybody
rifling through your entire hard drive.
Intel is working on the security software and digital copyright
management technology that would make file sharing feel safer. But the
war between viruses and companies such as MacAfee proves that nothing is
100 per cent secure once you're hooked up.