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Napster Steams Angry Coffee

Last Wednesday, audio tutorial site Angry Coffee announced it was starting a fee-based MP3.com-like service to allow indie and unsigned artists to submit music to the site. The company simultaneously released a web-based search service called Percolator that taps into music search services, including Napster. The idea, said CEO Adam Powell, was that visitors searching for the music from the likes of Bruce Springsteen would see the names of some of Angry Coffee's indie artists floating at the top of the search results page.

But the plan went awry two days later when Napster cut off Angry Coffee's access to its search network. "We saw this coming a mile off," admits Powell. But he's still amazed at what he calls Napster's "incredible hypocrisy". "You build your entire company on unauthorized distributions of music," he said, "and you have a problem with someone crawling those resources? That's ridiculous."

When you arrive at Angry Coffee's site, a notice at the search window reads, in part: "Napster has shut us out of their network. We think it's lame that a company that built its business through unauthorized distribution would consider Percolator to be an unauthorized use of their resources, but they're entitled to their opinion."

A Napster spokesperson simply said "No comment" when asked about this mini-controversy.

Powell says that Percolator still searches other "hacker collectives" like MyNapster. But there are still bugs: Occasionally, when trying to download music from such sites, you'll encounter a Page Not Found error.

Nevertheless, Angry Coffee's search engine strategy seems to have some merit. Currently, searches on Percolator yield direct results, plus the name of one of Angry Coffee's indie/unsigned artists, chosen randomly. But the next version of Percolator will feature context-sensitive results, Powell says, as it will use more intelligent associated databases and Flycast-like searching to find similar artists and genres. "We're hoping to take people trained by the Napster paradigm and funnel them to indie and unsigned artists," he said.

Indie Focus

Angry Coffee is a destination site where artists can post their music for a fee of less than $20. Powell says that anyone can post music—there's no editorial control over music content at the site. In this sense, Angry Coffee is treading on turf covered by MP3.com in its early stages. Recently, however, MP3.com has been concentrating on being a "music service provider" and tangling with the major labels. "MP3.com has completely gone away from helping indie artists," says Powell. "[CEO Michael Robertson] took all that money and put up Beam It, which has nothing to do with indie artists at all. It has to do with the corporation making money."

Angry Coffee's indie focus is the result of Powell's involvement as a musician. "I'm equally dismayed by record labels, the RIAA, and Napster," he says. "None of them are looking out for us [artists]. Napster's just looking out for themselves." Although he was opposed to the Napster concept--he admits to uninstalling the software in March 1999--Powell realized he couldn't stop fighting the idea of open distribution digital networks. "It makes so much more sense; searching becomes accurate," he says.

Anonymous Searches

That's just one of the benefits of the Percolator search service. Another is that users don't need to download software to use it, and anonymity is preserved when searching: It is much more difficult to track down users when they come from a web page than from a program like Napster, which asks for an e-mail address and tracks users' IP addresses.

New file-sharing systems like FreeNet, developed by a 23-year old British programmer, are certain to change the landscape. Anonymity is at the core of FreeNet, which lets users snare MP3s, text documents or practically anything else--without leaving a trail. Unlike Napster, FreeNet does not use a central server; every user on the system becomes a node to grab and drop files. Also, the FreeNet project is open source, which means that no one controls it. Who do you sue when there's no company, just eager programmers from around the world patching together the code?

Down, But Not Out

Powell says that if the RIAA comes after Angry Coffee, he will simply release the search service as open source. "Then you'll have 80 billion web pages with the little window searching anything," he says. "Then it's game over. You've dumped the poison into the water." But he says he doesn't want to do that, especially since owning the tool is advantageous for Angry Coffee.

If Napster sues, Powell says the case wouldn't last five minutes in court. "We don't really care since we have no money. We had a good idea and tight code, so we hold all the cards in this one."

Meanwhile, Angry Coffee is still going forward with its other initiatives. "We're still expanding our [audio] tutorials, but we're moving more to the artist showcase thing, and more releases of the search engine," says Powell. "But we're not hinging our future on the search engine."

Powell's still trying to get Napster CEO Hank Barry to return his phone calls, but says his company is not big enough to command Barry's attention. What would Powell say to Napster? "I would like to say, ‘Hey, why don't you just open it back up and we'll take the message off our page?'" For now, Angry Coffee must forge ahead knowing it will probably never have access to Napster again.

But all is not lost: New networks like FreeNet are just getting started, and there are many more file-sharing resources to tap into. Web-based searching is something millions of users are already accustomed to, and the concept has the potential to bring networks like Napster to an even bigger audience. Though it has been set back, Angry Coffee may be on to something.

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