The search engine was put in place about a month ago on the popular Winamp Web site. Winamp is a software media player made by Nullsoft, which is owned by AOL.

The engine served as a tool to complement the Winamp software and had ruffled more than a few feathers in the music industry.

Q Prime’s Cliff Burnstein, co-manager of Metallica, compared the service to the launch of Gnutella, which was also created by AOL subsidiary Nullsoft. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich has made headlines this year by pressing the band’s own copyright infringement lawsuit against Napster.

When released last spring, Gnutella was described by AOL as a “freelance unauthorized project.” Like Napster, Gnutella facilitates the exchange of music files between users, but unlike Napster, it does not require a central server, making any attempt at legal action nearly impossible.

Although AOL disavowed Gnutella almost immediately after Nullsoft programmers had posted the program on the Net, it didn’t move quick enough and the software has since entered the realm of shareware, meaning that anyone can use it to swap songs to their heart’s content.

“We don’t have an efficient process for distinguishing between legal and illegal MP3s,” said AOL spokesperson Jim Whitney, “so we decided to take it down until we can address that.”

The Nullsoft MP3 search engine was especially embarrassing because AOL is trying to complete a merger with Time Warner, which would bring Warner Bros. Records under the AOL corporate umbrella. Warner Bros. is one of the complainants – along with the other major labels – in lawsuits against Internet companies over copyright infringement.

One of the companies being sued is MP3Board, which provides a similar search engine for routing MP3 files. Ira Rothken, the attorney representing MP3Board, said he believed “for legal purposes, there are no material differences” between MP3Board’s service and the Winamp search engine.

As of August 10, MP3 search box was still visible on the Winamp Web site, but if you tried to search for an artist, you received the following message; “Sorry. Search unavailable at this time. Sad, sad Nullsoft.”

However, a visit to the Nullsoft Web site revealed a more interesting quote, “… we’re legitimate media terrorists as history will no doubt canonize us.”