SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- America Online spent $86 million last year to buy Nullsoft Inc., a renegade startup responsible for programs such as Winamp and Gnutella, which have helped millions use the Internet to obtain and play music free-of-charge.
Far from being co-opted, Nullsoft programmers have since spent some of their spare time cracking AOL's code, apparently happy to subvert corporate profit models with software that leverages the global information network's innate distributive power.
Casual observers of Nullsoft's headquarters in an old Mission District warehouse might mistake the programmers pecking away at terminals for nice, clean-cut, 20-something establishment types.
Casual observers would be wrong.
According to the credo posted in blood-red lettering on Nullsoft's Web site, they consider themselves "legitimate nihilistic media terrorists" whom history will "no doubt canonize".
That philosophy would appear to clash with the corporate mandate of AOL, which hopes to profit in virtually every area of Internet content through its pending merger with media-rich Time Warner.
Nullsoft's programmers refused to be interviewed, and founder Justin Frankel declined comment after The Associated Press made repeated requests by telephone and e-mail. America Online was also circumspect. Spokesman Jim Whitney called Frankel's activities an internal personnel matter.
But if their behavior is any indication, Nullsoft's half-dozen star programmers seem determined to keep their hacker spirit intact, scripting a growing series of freely distributed software.
And for now, in public at least, AOL seems nonplussed by Nullsoft's antics.
"Nobody's slapped their hand yet," said Joyce Graff, research director at the Gartner Group, who thinks that in the long run it is in AOL's best commercial interests to maintain close contact with creative programmers like Frankel and company.
"Just to be a hair subversive," she said, "it tends to keep you honest."
Warmly referred to on Nullsoft's Web site as "Our Benevolent Dictator," Frankel founded the company in 1998 as a 19-year-old University of Utah dropout.
He parlayed Winamp -- which plays MP3 files, high quality computer versions of songs frequently copied from CDs -- into the most sought-after piece of audio software on the Internet before agreeing to be bought by the Dulles, Va.-based behemoth in May 1999. Winamp had more than 25 million registered users as of June 21.
After the recording industry sued Napster Inc. in an effort to contain the Internet music-swapping craze, Frankel ensured that the MP3 genie would forever remain out of its bottle.
In March, he briefly posted a program called Gnutella on the Nullsoft site. It decentralized the Napster concept, creating a vast, ever-changing peer-to-peer network of users able to swap any computer files, not just MP3s, with a great degree of anonymity.
No company oversees or profits from the anarchic online bazaar that Gnutella and programs like it encourage, so there are no clear targets for lawsuits by content providers whose copyrighted music, videos and software are being freely traded.
Still restless, Frankel crafted AIMazing in his spare time last month. A small software add-on for Winamp, it wipes out the AOL ads on Instant Messenger, replacing them with a pulsing musical heartbeat.
AIMazing is still available for download
But some Frankel projects, like Gnutella, have been quickly removed from Web pages his company controls.
On Aug. 10, America Online Inc. pulled the plug on a MP3 search engine located on a site belonging to Nullsoft.
"We don't have an efficient process for distinguishing between legal and illegal MP3s, so we decided to take it down until we can address that," AOL's Whitney said at the time. It was an odd admission considering that the Winamp player doesn't distinguish between playing legal and illegal MP3s either.
Even AOL-authorized projects have given the music industry headaches.
Nullsoft's free Shoutcast software -- like all its programs free-of-charge -- enables anyone to become an Internet broadcaster, streaming music to logged-on listeners everywhere while paying no royalties.
Rob Nielson, a 23-year-old computer technician in Mesa, Ariz., uses Shoutcast to create an Internet station that streaming all Led Zeppelin, all the time. Nielson sends out a random rotation of 170 of the band's songs -- just to entertain his friends.
"I just couldn't find Led Zeppelin anywhere on the Internet," Nielson said. "You search and search and all you can find is Metallica and Britney Spears."
As hard as major record labels fight to contain online music programs such as Napster and MP3.com, the popularity of Frankel's software has prompted them to embrace Winamp, though it doesn't prevent the playing of unauthorized music.
Atlantic Records has even begun to include the Winamp program on some music CDs, such as Matchbox 20's latest release, "Mad Season." This basically provides all the software someone with a CD burner would need to make illegal, high-quality copies.
Atlantic Records is part of Warner Music Group, the recording concern owned by Time Warner, so the digital copying features of Winamp are known and tolerated by all involved.
Despite all the baggage, Nullsoft's cutting-edge software engineers remain highly valued by AOL, says Aram Sinnreich, an analyst with Jupiter Research.
AOL "didn't hire the guys at Nullsoft to decide what is and is not legal behavior for consumers on the Internet," Sinnreich said. "They hired the guys at Nullsoft to think of really cool things that you can do with music online."
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