Here are some of your options on music downloads:
The most useful alternative to Napster is Napster.
The company says it is blocking hundreds of thousands of copyrighted songs from users in response to an injunction handed down last month by a federal judge hearing the suit brought against it by the Recording Industry Association of America, among others. But as it is, an awful lot of music seems to leak out around the edges.
It is always hard to separate routine Napster crashes and misconfigurations from real problems, but it appears that the filter doesn't immediately block a user's file list. Thus if someone logs on and publishes a file list, and you immediately start downloading a file from that list, you'll probably get it.
While there's no question that fewer high-demand files are available, about all that seems to mean is there may be only two or three copies of "Lady Marmalade," the "Voulez-vous couchez avec moi" song, on your search list, rather than a dozen.
There's been some talk of renaming files or using automatic pig Latin translators to fool the filter. But Napster has been discouraging this. As filter techniques are tightened, the service will become increasingly unusable -- or so they say. We'll believe it when we see it.
Right now, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, 70 percent of supposedly proscribed songs are available under their real names, and the balance are available under slightly modified names.
The other Napster-type Napster alternative is often referred to as "Open Nap," which is basically a Napster-style file server running under the auspices of someone who isn't currently in court litigating with the Recording Industry Association of America. There are hundreds, if not thousands of these privately operated servers out there now.
The best are as good as official Napster servers; the worst seem to be hosted on PalmPilots.
Assuming the genuine Napster goes down for the count, it will probably take the association another six months to shut down these guys. Some say they plan to move servers offshore, out of reach of U.S. courts, but the expense of this makes it highly unlikely.
To get at Open Nap servers, you need to download a program called Napigator from http://napigator.com. Normally, when you load Napster, you're logged into one of a dozen or so of the company servers at random, and you can swap files only with other people on the server. Napigator, which loads along with the regular Napster program, lets you pick your server.
Napigator's listings also include a list of those unofficial servers, many of which are dedicated to specific genres (DeathNap, for example, is for hard-core heavy metal fans). Some Open Nappers prefer to use their own Napster-like programs such as FileNavigator, Rapigator, audioGnome, TekNap or WinMX.
Like communism, Gnutella is a great idea that seems to fascinate the thinking and writing classes but works rather poorly for normal people in the real world. The guys who invented Winamp (the popular MP3 player for Windows that also plays MIDI, WAV and other digital music files) eventually went to work for America Online and came up with a set of protocols under the rubric of "Gnutella" that provided a standard way to publish and swap all kinds of files, not just music.
Under these protocols, computers talk to each other directly, rather than through a central Napster server. Ergo, no one to take to court.
The beta software worked pretty well when hardly anyone used it. But when the first legal threat to Napster last summer sent hundreds of thousands of users onto the network, it pretty much collapsed at that point. Two problems occurred: The software wasn't particularly robust or user-friendly; and the network itself got bogged down when the communications needed to operate it overwhelmed the actual data being shared.
But if you tried Gnutella back then and gave up, it is definitely worth another look.
Other programmers have cleaned up the original application and published their own versions. Two such programs are called BearShare and LimeWire, which are straightforward installations, and nowhere near as buggy as the original. Plus, of course, you can grab all kinds of files, including porn movies -- which, on second thought, might deter parents from letting their kids install Gnutella programs.
But you must keep in mind that roughly 90 percent of downloads on the Gnutella network fail.
Private Chat-Based File-Sharing
Long before MP3s arrived on the scene, Internet Relay Chat, or IRC -- one of the oldest Net-based services -- was a hotbed of file-swapping.
Unlike all the automatic file-sharing services, on IRC you actually have to meet someone online and persuade them to swap with you; you can't just download files from a list. You need an IRC program, like mIRC, to log into the service, then look for a compatible chat room with like-minded folks who want to share files. See www.mirc.co.uk for software; for general directions, take a look at www.mirc.org and www.irchelp.org.
IRC can be a tough go for beginners, but because it is private and one-on-one, it is proof against anything the recording industry will ever come up with.
Philosophically akin to IRC is AIMster, which piggybacks file-sharing on AOL Instant Messenger. It works on a couple of different levels and may be the most interesting file-sharing program out there.
First, it functions as a Napster application, so you can grab music from any Napster or Open Nap server quickly and efficiently.
Second, you can switch to the AIMster network, which functions like Gnutella, which means it is peer-to-peer with no central servers, allowing you to work with other AIMster users and all types of files, not just music. However, this is a lot slower.
Finally, if you want, you don't have to share files out to those networks. You can, instead, configure the program to share files only with people you know. It will pick up AIM buddy lists and use those for sharing, or you can include the names of people you meet online via Napster or AIMster. These kinds of transfers run really fast.
AIMster appears poised to deal with just about any legal development. If Napster goes away, there's still a big peer-to-peer network for anonymous sharing. If that's blocked, you'll still be able to open your file catalog to buddies.
A couple of second-generation Napster alternatives are worth noting: KaZaA and Audiogalaxy.
KaZaA works something like Gnutella, in that there's no central file server. However, its network protocols create so-called "supernodes" that serve much the same function.
Based originally in Europe, it has been getting a lot of attention in recent weeks in the United States for its speed and success rates -- up to 90 percent in some cases. It has a couple of neat tricks; for example, it can download portions of the same file simultaneously from several computers.
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