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Scour repositions itself amid Napster controversy

Industry Standard

(IDG) -- As Napster awaits an appellate court ruling that could temporarily shut it down, Scour -- the other embattled peddler of peer-to-peer file-sharing software -- is quietly repositioning its business strategy.

The Michael Ovitz-backed company had to lay off most of its staff last month after a copyright infringement lawsuit scared off investors. Now, Scour has inked a deal with United Devices, a Softbank-funded distributed-computing startup, which will pay Scour to help distribute United Devices' free software to the 4 million people who trade media files with Scour Exchange.

United Devices taps idle processing power from consumers' PCs, which when networked can perform complex computations that would otherwise require enormous and hugely expensive supercomputers. The arrangement, known as distributed computing, was made famous by the Seti@Home project, which searches for extraterrestrials. (In fact, United Devices CTO David Anderson was Seti@Home's director.) Instead of looking for ETs, United Devices plans to sell its architecture to corporations and institutions for use in all types of research projects, from economic modeling to simulated drug testing.

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For Scour, it's part b-to-b play, part philanthropy. "Scour helps you find your entertainment, and [now] it also helps you find the cure to cancer," beams Travis Kalanick, Scour's VP of strategy.

Users of Scour's file-sharing software compose a perfect demographic target for United Devices, he adds, because not only do they tend to be early adopters with broadband access and the latest machines, but they're also used to sharing bandwidth and storage. "They can do the same with their processors," Kalanick says. To encourage people to loan out their unused computing cycles, United Devices will also offer incentives such as the chance to win prizes.

United Devices spokesman Andy Prince says that, legal issues aside, the deal is a great way for the company to get its software in front of people. As of last week, Scour Exchange was the second-most popular title on CNET's

"From a pure business point of view, it was hard to pass up," says Prince of United Devices' first, and so far only, distribution deal. "There's going to be a lot of interest in distributed file sharing, distributed storage, distributed computing. It's going to change the landscape pretty tremendously. Napster and Scour are small examples of what can be done with the technology."

Not everyone shares Prince's enthusiasm for the synergistic potential between peer-to-peer file sharing and distributed computing. "Quite a few companies are trying to sell [distributed computing] under the p-to-p banner," says Ian Clarke, founder of the file-sharing service Freenet. "While I think it is a nice idea, it is nothing new, and I think [United Devices] might have trouble finding people willing to pay for it."

Bob Knighten, a peer-to-peer evangelist at Intel acknowledges that a p-to-p exchange isn't essential to distributed computing. However, he says incorporating the two could expand the variety of problems distributed computing could attack, at least in theory. "It could be a much richer class of computation," he says.

There are other advantages for Scour. In the words of the landmark 1984 case that relieved Sony (SNE) from charges that its Betamax VCR facilitated piracy -- a case on which both Napster and Scour are relying heavily in their respective legal defenses -- Kalanick stresses that the deal represents yet another "substantial noninfringing use" of Scour's technology.

But this particular application of the technology may not hold up as well in court as Kalanick would like to think. "If you have one thing that's arguably illegal, and just attach something nice, that doesn't necessarily solve the problem," says Whitney Broussard, an entertainment attorney with law firm Selverne, Mandelbaum & Mintz.

Kalanick acknowledges that currently, Scour's offerings aren't interdependent. But he says Scour plans ultimately to bundle its p-to-p network with other applications -- whether file sharing, distributed computing or content delivery -- into one cohesive package.

Though this deal alone may not enable Scour to realize its vision for the future of p-to-p, it at least opens the door to a revenue stream that doesn't depend on an endorsement from content owners such as record labels or movie studios. And a few months from now, that may come in very handy.

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