AOL removes MP3 search engine

With no way to tell whether material is legal or illegal, service if scrapped

The latest skirmish in the ongoing battle over digital delivery of music via the Internet has found America Online removing a search engine developed by its Winamp/Nullsoft/Spinner subsidiary that enables users to locate unauthorized MP3 files.

Added to the San Francisco-based Winamp group’s home page about a month ago — and disabled Thursday — the search engine only provided hyperlinks to songs on other Web sites. No unauthorized MP3s were stored on AOL computers.

“We couldn’t come up with an efficient process to distinguish between legal and illegal files,” AOL spokesman Jim Whitney told Daily Variety. “There’s no universal software that allows us to do that easily, so we decided to take it down.”

Industry observers point out the AOL service was similar to that offered by MP3.Board, which is currently being sued by the RIAA, whose members include proposed AOL merger partner Time Warner’s music division. Spokesmen for Time Warner and the Warner Music Group declined all comment.

Of course, one proposed merger partner can hardly be responsible for what a subsidiary of the other proposed partner does — particularly when the marriage has yet to be consummated. And, indeed, the existence of the now-disabled search engine was brought to light not by Time Warner or Warner Music Group execs but by an article on Internet news site Upside.com.

Gnutella neutered

Earlier this year, employees of the same AOL subsidiary developed and posted the code to the file-sharing program Gnutella — a Napster-like service that can’t easily be shut down because it has no central server –which AOL quickly declared an “unauthorized freelance project” and pulled offline.