The record industry's largely successful effort to cripple Napster, the online music site turned social phenomenon, has left it facing something potentially worse: a new generation of music-swapping sites, more numerous and much harder to police.
Figures released Friday show that a precipitous drop in Napster's traffic over the last several weeks has been paralleled by explosive growth in less centralized services welcoming millions of Napster refugees.
"Napster is probably dead," said Brian Itschner, 29, a law-office manager in Tampa and former Napster user who has moved to MusicCity.com. "But it hasn't stopped this" free-music exchange movement.
Six of the alternative services had 320,000 to 1.1-million users
each in May, according to figures released Friday from Jupiter Media Metrix, a Web traffic measuring service. Five of those services had little traffic or did not even exist in February.
Those figures are consistent with those from other services that track Internet use. Last week, people initiated downloads of 1.1-million copies of software for the Music City service on Download.com, a software clearinghouse offered by CNET Networks on which hundreds of programs are available. The program, called Morpheus, was the single most widely downloaded program on the site.
Other programs used to exchange music, called Audiogalaxy Satellite, BearShare, LimeWire, KaZaA and iMesh, were all among the top 10 most downloaded programs on Download.com. They have emerged, industry analysts say, as users have become accustomed to obtaining music online but as a vacuum was created by the demise of Napster and the failure of record labels to quickly create their own for-pay services.
Napster has been out of service since July 1, when the company stopped all file sharing so that it could integrate new technology to allow it to better block the trading of copyrighted files not authorized for exchange. The company, which is under a court order to block such files, said its filtering system was 99 percent effective, but said it had not decided when to put the service back up.
But it remains to be seen whether people will return to Napster, which once claimed 70-million users, if they cannot freely exchange popular music. Strong evidence suggests that, even before Napster went offline, the number of songs traded on the site plummeted as much as 95 percent when it began filtering unlicensed copyrighted files, according to Webnoize, a digital music research company.
Matthew Bailey, an analyst with Webnoize, said one critical tool helping fuel the new generation of sites was a program called Fast Track, which is the underlying software of the KaZaA and MusicCity services.
Fast Track is the creation of Niklas Zennstrom, chief executive of Fast Track, based in Amsterdam, which operates the KaZaA service. Zennstrom said KaZaA was fundamentally different from Napster because the exchange relied less on computers operated by the company and more on users' computers.
Users of Fast Track software trade music from their own computers, as Napster users did, but they also use their own computers to search. The software searches the network of users for those with the most powerful computers, turning those computers temporarily into a search hub, or "super-node," that other users can tap into to search the network.
Such decentralized searches are nothing new, but industry analysts said the difference is that the new generation has become increasingly easy to use, and increasingly more difficult to police, possibly forcing record companies to sue individual users, a daunting task.
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