Will AOL take Aimster?

Try as it might to be an upstanding cybercitizen, AOL finds itself supporting a piracy program that piggybacks on AIM.

By Janelle Brown
Published August 11, 2000 6:47PM (EDT)

There are moments when you have to wonder whether America Online rues the day that it ever heard of the acronym MP3 and that little company called Nullsoft, which it so eagerly acquired last summer.

It must have hurt when those devious Nullsoft programmers turned around and unleashed a program called Gnutella, which enables users to swap MP3s, pirated software, pornography and stolen e-books -- even as AOL is acquiring Time Warner, with its record labels and publishing division. Although AOL has kept mum on the matter, and the company quickly shut Nullsoft's Gnutella Web site down, the application is now embarrassingly widespread and considered to be the unassailable Napster.

So imagine the egg that those AOL executives must have been wiping off their face when they realized that the WinAmp player -- Nullsoft's popular MP3 player -- was also aiding and abetting MP3 piracy. It turns out that a search function added last month to the WinAmp player was letting users hunt the Internet for MP3s -- not all of which are totally legal. Considering the fact that the Recording Industry Association of America is embroiled in a lawsuit with a similar service called MP3Board.com, it's no surprise that AOL swiftly shut down WinAmp's search function Thursday.

But no sooner had the search function been removed, then a group of programmers from Troy, N.Y., announced the release of a program called Aimster. Aimster, which piggybacks on AOL's popular instant messaging system (called AIM), allows all AIM users to search for files on AOL, the Microsoft Network and -- surprise! -- Gnutella. Although my attempts to check the system out on Thursday were foiled by busy servers, Aimster apparently utilizes AIM's buddy lists to help users "screen" for file-swapping friends they can trust.

AIM, you may recall, was the instant messaging program that AOL refused to make compatible with other instant messaging programs, in a truculent battle to keep its program dominant. So the fact that an MP3 piracy network figured out how to piggyback on AIM must really burn AOL up. (AOL didn't respond to requests for comment.)

It seems that AOL just can't win when it comes to MP3s, but surely it hasn't given up yet.

Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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