Grouper Limits File-Sharers to a Select Few

Rhett Pardon
MILL VALLEY, Calif. — As Hollywood and record companies continue to worry about copyright infringement over the Internet, a California startup has released a new program designed to let a controlled group of Internet users to form a closed network in which they can share home videos and digital photos with each other.

The free file-sharing software called Grouper from Grouper Networks Inc. works only with computers running on Microsoft's Windows XP or Windows 2000.

But for those who are used to trading files on the Internet, there’s one catch that might limit Grouper’s popularity — users can download copies of mp3 files but only listen or view them.

Grouper, which requires a high-speed Internet connection, includes an instant messaging system so users can chat about their files.

Released last month and currently in beta, Grouper limits private networks to 30 members. By limiting music sharing to streams in small groups, Grouper simply enables "private performances," which is protected by U.S. copyright law, Grouper cofounder John Felser said.

"We're not a public file-sharing network. What we offer is a way to connect to hard drives within a group in a safe, encrypted environment," Felser told eWeek in a recent interview.

"Think of it as a simplified collaboration tool similar to Groove," he said, referring to the high-end enterprise software sold by Groove Networks. "We've been approached by lots of companies who see this as an accessible way to connect and share larger files in an encrypted environment."

Felser envisions Grouper as a tool for universities where students can form study groups to share notes and collaborate on projects. He said it could also be embraced by professors to distribute course material or post audio or video lectures.

Felser and cofounder Dave Samuel say they will keep the program free of adware or spyware, but plan to generate advertising revenue and by selling a premium version of the program in several months.

Felser made his fortune selling a previous venture, Internet music startup Spinner.com, to America Online for $320 million in 1999. Spinner became one of the components for what is now AOL Music.

Grouper launched with $1 million in angel seed funding, Felser says.

The new software program can be downloaded here