NEW MEDIA: Fair exchange? - File-sharing technologies are getting more sophisticated every day, but they are opening a huge can of copyright worms. Sally Nash reports on the industry's view

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 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

(web) browser'.

Leonard argues that the internet and communications technologies in

general are leading us towards a more open environment for the sharing

of information.

'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, 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

marketing techniques.

It is up to 'clicks and mortar' retailers such as, 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

each campaign.'

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

information itself.

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



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

search queries'.

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 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.'


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.


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



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

from outside.'

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.

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Already registered?
Sign in