You can get the latest hits from Britney Spears and Michael Jackson on Fast Track, and that has the music industry worried
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Britney Spears, I'm a Slave 4 U

In a rare moment of unity, the world’s biggest music and movie companies have joined forces to anoint a new star — sort of. It’s called FastTrack — a file-sharing network that many have pegged as the new Napster — and its apparent leap to prominence is courtesy of a massive copyright infringement suit filed against it Wednesday by showbiz giants ranging from Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records to 20th Century Fox.

Citing the availability through FastTrack of downloadable music from ‘N Sync to Bob Dylan and movies including ”American Pie 2” and ”Planet of the Apes,” the lawsuit asks a California U.S. District Court to order a stop to the rampant, um, sharing. But Napster itself (now legally crippled) became a pop-culture buzzword only after Metallica, Dr. Dre, and the whole music industry sued it, creating a monster bigger than the one they were trying to destroy.

One leading digital media analyst, Aram Sinnreich of Jupiter Media Metrix, predicts a similar fate for the industry’s latest target. ”I would be surprised if the immediate effect of this wasn’t to drive millions more consumers into the arms of FastTrack,” he tells EW.com. In fact, the FastTrack network — which comprises users of Morpheus and two similar programs, Kazaa and Grokster — already has about a million people logged on at any given moment, according to the research firm Webnoize.

The firm claimed, in research figures released Wednesday, that a whopping 1.5 billion files passed through FastTrack just last month — which happens to be when the most avid file-traders, freeloading college kids, hopped back onto their campus’ high speed networks. Morpheus, meanwhile, is the most popular free software download on the Internet, according to a chart maintained by CNET’s Download.com.

But an entertainment industry source familiar with the lawsuit says that the music and movie companies behind it are confident that FastTrack won’t hit Napster-like heights. ”The climate has changed. It’s possible that Morpheus will gain more users, but this isn’t new anymore,” the source says. ”People are [already] aware that these services exist.”

In any case, it’s unclear whether the companies behind the various FastTrack programs could shut the network down even if they wanted to. Unlike Napster, which used the company’s central servers to help users search each other’s hard drives for music, FastTrack’s network lets users search and download using only the chain of computers logged onto the system.

As with Napster, users simply type in the name of the song or movie they’re looking for, and search results from other users’ hard drives around the world pop up. ”As long as there’s an Internet and machines using the software, the sharing network will be around for perpetuity,” analyst Sinnreich said.

The entertainment industry’s lawsuit suggests, however, that the companies behind FastTrack are capable of shutting the system down, although it falls short of saying how that might be possible. FastTrack CEO Niklas Zennström said this summer that the only way to stop the system would be to threaten individual users with legal action, a piracy-prevention step that the entertainment industry has, perhaps understandably, been loathe to take. (Zennström and spokespersons for the other programs on FastTrack’s system couldn’t be reached for comment at press time).

So for now, at least, anyone who downloads Morpheus or either of its sister programs has free access to a Napster-like cornucopia of free music well before it hits stores, including such recent selections as Britney Spears’ ”I’m A Slave 4 U,” Michael Jackson’s ”You Rock My World,” and Bruce Springsteen’s ”My City of Ruins.”

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