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The Morpheus Incident

How corporate squabbles could stifle the Web

June 2002

At the end of February, the peer-to-peer world was rocked by a bizarre series of events. First, a million users of the Morpheus file-sharing application suddenly found themselves locked out of the network. After initially blaming the problem on a technical glitch, the company that makes Morpheus, StreamCast of Tennessee, claimed that it had been sabotaged by Australia-based Sharman Networks, proprietor of the FastTrack file-sharing protocol. StreamCast then issued a "preview edition" of its version 2.0 product, which on closer inspection turned out to be a rebranded version of Gnucleus, an established Gnutella client.

Meanwhile, Kazaa, a competing file-swapping service based in Holland, began a "Welcome Over to Our Place" campaign directed at Morpheus users. It posted a software installer that would "fix" Morpheus users' software by migrating them to the Kazaa system.

What's going on? The answer is ugly. After the Recording Industry Association of America closed Napster down, several companies jumped in to claim Napster's place in the music and file-sharing niche. Eventually, two camps emerged: products built on the open-source Gnutella P2P protocol, and products based on the proprietary FastTrack protocol. FastTrack services include Kazaa (the original inventor of the FastTrack protocol), StreamCast's Morpheus, and another service called Grokster.

Because StreamCast licensed its technology from a competitor in the music-sharing industry, there may always have been some tension between it and Kazaa. However, the situation became worse in December 2001, when Kazaa, threatened by a copyright lawsuit in the Netherlands, folded and sold its name and assets to Sharman Networks of Australia.

Sharman seems to have been less enthusiastic about sharing its technology with StreamCast. According to StreamCast's CEO, when the FastTrack protocol was updated to version 1.5, Sharman Networks failed to provide StreamCast with the information it needed to take advantage of the protocol's new features. StreamCast protested this action by withholding some $60,000 in licensing fees.

The dispute simmered until the end of February, when StreamCast claims that Sharman Networks pulled the plug on Morpheus without warning. Using a facility in the FastTrack protocol that was designed to trigger live software updates, Sharman propagated a message across FastTrack that caused Morpheus clients to try to update themselves. But because there was no new version of Morpheus to update to, the software was effectively disabled.

This action left StreamCast scrambling to pick up the pieces. Unable to patch things up with Sharman, StreamCast turned to a ready-made alternative, the open source Gnucleus client. StreamCast pasted its logo onto the Gnucleus splash screen and released the software as a preview product. This was allowed under the Gnucleus GNU General Public License (GPL) terms, provided that the modified source was also redistributed. Although initially neglectful of this obligation, StreamCast released the modified source code to its Web site a few days later.

Whether StreamCast will be able to retain its user base is a matter of speculation, but let's think for a moment about the implications of the Morpheus incident. Due to a technical dispute between two companies, a million users permanently lost the use of a piece of software. It's like AT&T retaliating against Southwestern Bell by listing a fuse that melts all of the telephone handsets made by Southwestern Bell. Under the license agreements that software companies use, this type of action is legal. In fact, the proposed Uniform Computer Information Transactions Act (UCITA) encourages the use of software time bombs to enforce license terms.

As the Web moves toward a world of distributed services, companies will increasingly have both the motive and opportunity to interfere with competitors. Consider strategic choke points like Microsoft's Passport service or AOL/TimeWarner's cable routers. If Microsoft can make competitors' Web sites seem slow to accept credit cards, or AOL/TimeWarner can cut off competitors' streaming video, how long do you think they will resist the temptation to do so?

There are solutions. Government regulation could force companies to keep the Internet open. Or we could defend and expand the use of open source protocols on the Web to prevent any one company from gaining a choke hold on the network through proprietary technologies.

The Morpheus incident is a wake-up call. We must maintain the Internet as a level playing field where all comers have an equal opportunity to compete. Only in this way can new technologies like P2P grow and flourish.

Lincoln is an M.D. and Ph.D. who designs information systems for the human genome project at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York, NY. You can contact him at

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