AOL Time Warner is trying to stop the spread of new software released by its Nullsoft division, whose founder and lead programmer, Justin Frankel, is known for leaking his work onto the Internet and causing headaches for his employer.
The new program makes it easy for groups of about 50 people to set up file-sharing networks that are secure and private. In addition to letting users search for and download files, it includes an instant messaging feature that could be seen as competition for AOL Instant Messenger, which provides AOL with a crucial presence on millions of computer screens.
The software’s documentation says it is designed to allow small business groups to collaborate. But encrypted networks are also the next holy grail for Internet file-swappers as media companies — including AOL — prepare to file lawsuits against people who copy music without paying for it by using publicly accessible programs like KaZaA.
Mr. Frankel, 24, went to work for AOL when it bought his four-person company, Nullsoft, in 1999 for stock worth $80 million. The author of Winamp, software that helped popularize the MP3 music format on the Internet, Mr. Frankel has seemed intent on retaining his hacker credibility even while working for one of the world’s largest media conglomerates.
The release of the new program late Wednesday night on the Nullsoft Web site echoed the release in March 2000 of Gnutella, designed by Mr. Frankel and his team, which was available on the Nullsoft site for a few hours in March 2000 before AOL removed it.
With Napster mired in litigation, Gnutella provided a framework that developers used to build a system that could mimic Napster’s functions without a central server, thus making it almost impossible to shut down. Gnutella and its clones are now widely used to trade, among other things, movies and music from AOL’s entertainment divisions.
Mr. Frankel and his team later developed a free add-on to the Winamp player that searched the Web for MP3 files. AOL quickly removed that project from the Nullsoft site, too.
Nullsoft then released AIMazing, software to replace banner advertising on AOL’s instant messenger with images of sound waves and music. It remains available on the Web, though not on the Nullsoft site.
Mr. Frankel, who lists his title as “benevolent dictator” of the Nullsoft team, is a bit of a self-styled rebel, once proclaiming in his public weblog that he needs to continue doing things that are “cool.” But he has been largely silent since the Gnutella episode, which came just as AOL was merging with Time Warner.
The Nullsoft team’s wishful description of themselves online as “legitimate nihilistic media terrorists” (the company name is a jab at Microsoft) also appears to have vanished.
Their new program is called Waste, in an apparent allusion to the underground postal system that allowed people to evade the authorities in the Thomas Pynchon novel “The Crying of Lot 49.” Its release as a free download, complete with the underlying source code, elicited cheers from Mr. Frankel’s Internet fans.
In a message to an Internet discussion list he runs on the convergence of entertainment and technology, John Parres suggested that Mr. Frankel’s aim was not to facilitate copyright infringement but free speech. “Justin is a 21st century code warrior freedom fighter,” he wrote.
Whatever Mr. Frankel’s cause, AOL was anything but enthusiastic. Less than 24 hours after the new program was released, the company pulled it from the Nullosft site. On Friday evening, it posted a stern warning informing anyone who had obtained a copy that the release had not been authorized.
“You acquired no lawful rights to the software and must destroy any and all copies of the software, including by deleting it from your computer,” the notice reads. “Any license that you may believe you acquired with the software is void, revoked and terminated.”
Some critics suggested that the program’s developers may not have cleared all the rights to the encryption technology they used, or may lack the export license required for many encryption products.
An AOL spokeswoman said the company had no further comment. Mr. Frankel did not respond to e-mail or phone messages.
Many of supporters of Waste suggested in Internet discussions over the weekend that the program was fundamentally different from file-sharing software like Napster or Grokster because fewer than 100 people can use it at a time. The number of files available for copying would most likely never rival those available on such networks, which are often used by several million people at once.
But Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the Recording Industry Association of America, said the number of files involved was irrelevant according to his organization’s reading of copyright law. “Personal copies are O.K.,” Mr. Lamy said. “ ‘Sharing’ with someone else so they don’t have to purchase is not, whether it’s one person or 15 people or 5 million people.”
Mr. Lamy said he could not comment specifically on Waste because the group had not seen it. He registered surprise, however, when a reporter described the situation on Friday afternoon: “Wait — AOL is distributing it?” he asked.
Not anymore, but plenty of others are. Nullsoft’s developers published Waste under the GNU Public License from the Free Software Foundation, which authorizes anyone to modify and redistribute a program’s underlying source code. Dozens of Waste networks appeared to be up and running over the weekend, with several sites continuing to distribute the code despite AOL’s warning.
“Whatever Justin releases tends to be of some import,” said Shawn Yeager, a technology consultant in Toronto, who is making Waste available from his site. “Given his history and the personal respect I have for the work he does it seems to me to be important enough to preserve.”
Still, Eben Moglen, a lawyer for the Free Software Foundation, said that if the release was unauthorized it would not matter if it had his group’s “open source” designation. If AOL were to take one of the distributors to court, a judge would need to decide how much authority Mr. Frankel had, Mr. Moglen said.
“It doesn’t matter what the license says if the distributor didn’t intend to distribute it,” Mr. Moglen said. But he noted the “open source” license, as a practical matter, makes it hard to recapture software once it has been released.
From Justin Frankel’s weblog:
June 2 2003 @ 10:03pm
For me, coding is a form of self-expression.
It’s probably the form I’m most effective at.
Everything I code is arguably owned by the company.
The company controls what I do with my code [in the past, it seemed I had freedom, but it turns out all of that was not really the case--rather, I was somehow avoiding the control illicitly (for 4 years)]
The company controls the most effective means of self-expression I have.
This is unacceptable to me as an individual, therefore I must leav.
I don’t know when it will be, but I’m not going to last much longer.
I have nothing but respect for the company--I’ve just come to realize that it is time to do something different.
Rogue AOL Subsidiary Leader to Resign
By MATTHEW FORDAHL, AP Technology Writer
SAN JOSE, Calif. - A young programmer whose software startup, Nullsoft, was gobbled up by America Online — and then caused numerous headaches for its corporate parent — plans to resign after his latest piece of rebel code was pulled from the Internet.
Justin Frankel, 24, announced his intentions late Monday, less than a week after a file-sharing program called Waste was posted and then pulled from the Nullsoft Web site.
“The company controls the most effective means of self-expression I have,” he said in his Web log. “This is unacceptable to me as an individual, therefore I must leav (sic). I don’t know when it will be, but I’m not going to last much longer.”
Attempts to reach Frankel by telephone were not successful. An AOL spokeswoman declined to comment.
AOL paid $86 million for Nullsoft in 1999. At the time, the San Francisco company was best known for creating a popular music player called Winamp.
Despite the new corporate ownership, Nullsoft’s team of programmers managed to maintain a freestyle hacker culture.
In March 2000, Nullsoft briefly posted a decentralized file-sharing program called Gnutella (news - web sites) before it was axed by AOL. But the genie had been set free, and other developers refined the code to create post-Napster (news - web sites) file-sharing programs.
Nullsoft’s latest creation was a file-sharing program that allowed users to set up secure networks of no more than 50 people.
Within hours of its posting, Waste was deleted. In its place was a notice that said the program had been posted without Nullsoft’s permission.
“If you downloaded or otherwise obtained a copy of the software, you acquired no lawful rights to the software and must destroy any and all copies of the software, including by deleting it from your computer,” the statement said. “Any license that you may believe you acquired with the software is void, revoked and terminated.”
Frankel, who is called “Our Benevolent Dictator” on the Nullsoft site, founded the company in 1998 after dropping out of the University of Utah.
justin’s comments on the news
Apparently some vague typo-laden comments can become the basis for a pretty inaccurate and assuming AP story. Bleh. [and it didn’t stop there, so much of these writers/reporters seem to be taking huge liberties in their reports, it’s really retarded. makes me not believe _anything_ I read in the press... ]