LimeWire goes down, but where do its users go?


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Five months after finding LimeWire and its former chief executive liable for inducing users to violate the record companies’ copyrights, a federal judge on Tuesday ordered the company to pull the plug on its file-sharing network. Although both sides agreed to the terms of the permanent injunction that District Judge Kimba M. Wood signed, neither got what it really wanted out of the months of talks. LimeWire wasn’t able to obtain the licenses it needs to start an authorized music service. And the labels didn’t get a check from LimeWire and former CEO Mark Gorton to compensate them for almost 10 years’ worth of infringements.

And so the lawsuit continues to play out like a movie we’ve all seen before, with a court ordering the network’s operator to do everything in its power to stop users from coming back. At some point in the future, LimeWire might have a legitimate service to offer them, but they’ll probably be long gone by the time it does.


Not that people who used LimeWire for free downloads would have been eager to sign up for a paid service -- witness what happened to iMesh when it shifted abruptly from free (and illegal) to paid. And it’s hard to fault the labels for wanting to shut off the spigot of bootlegs flowing out of LimeWire as soon as possible, rather than waiting until the licensing negotiations were finally completed.

Yet the labels also demanded that LimeWire settle all the legal issues -- including the industry’s multimillion-dollar damage claims -- before they would agree to terms on licenses. That proved to be an insurmountable hurdle. Unless a settlement on damages is reached before then, Wood will hold a hearing in January on how much LimeWire should pay.

One interesting thing about the service LimeWire wants to launch is that it wouldn’t be based on the LimeWire network. According to Jason Herskowitz, vice president of product management, the company has nearly finished work on a service that integrates cloud-based music streams into users’ personal music collections. The point is to give people a single interface that lets them play and discover music from either source, as well as to download new tracks from LimeWire.

Herskowitz says that existing subscription services in effect force users to ignore the collections they assembled over the years. And while they work with an increasing number of smart phones, their libraries of online songs don’t work with iPods that can’t connect to the Net. LimeWire wants to lighten the impact on iPod users by letting subscribers download a number of MP3s each month in addition to streaming songs to their connected devices. It’s hard to judge how good an offer that would be, though, because the number of free MP3s and the amount of the monthly fee is still being negotiated.

It’s worth noting that the latest iteration of the Napster subscription music service as well as Microsoft’s Zune Pass service bundle free MP3s with their streams, but neither one has drawn a mass following. On the other hand, LimeWire’s file-sharing software had many millions of users -- its software had been downloaded an estimated 200 million times. That base could provide a huge head start toward mass adoption for the new service, if it proved to be compelling.

The injunction, however, appears to put the kibosh on that kind of shortcut to legitimacy. Among other things, it requires the company to disable “all functionality” of its current software and provide users a tool to uninstall it. Again, I understand why the labels want to stop the infringements. But offering users a legitimate LimeWire alternative concurrently with the shut-down would have done more to reduce infringements in the long run than simply telling them to take their piracy elsewhere.


-- Jon Healey

Healeywrites editorials for The Times’ Opinion Manufacturing Division.