Internet users hoping for a rush of new file-swapping services have been tricked. A February announcement from a Dutch company promising a platform for such services turns out to have been an April Fool's Day joke.

The project, called The Honest Thief, is a publicity stunt for a book with the same title, not an initiative to capitalise on a year-old Dutch court ruling that legitimised P2P (peer-to-peer) file-swapping services in the Netherlands, according to a statement on The Honest Thief's website posted yesterday, 1 April.

When launched late February, the company behind The Honest Thief said it would offer software, legal advice and a home base to file-sharing service providers. The announcement got worldwide media coverage, with The Wall Street Journal reporting it first.

"Well, guess what April Fools! The Honest Thief file-sharing venture was no more than a publicity stunt," the statement on reads.

In hindsight, there were a few clues in February that The Honest Thief was a prank. The software was due in the second quarter, which starts 1 April, and was previously used to promote a book with the same name.

"We did mislead and use people, but you can't have a joke of this size if you don't," said Pieter Plass, the man who concocted the story. "I don't believe we caused any harm or financial damage."

Plass said his "lying and deceiving" may have hurt the reputation of The Wall Street Journal and other media outlets. "This does cast a shadow over the reputation of the press," he said. Still, Plass does not expect any legal action against him as a result of his trickery. "We really never did any business and came out on 1 April."

The entertainment industry, which had executives rushing to condemn The Honest Thief when the prank started, can now feel relieved.

File-sharing applications such as Kazaa and Morpheus allow users to swap files for free. The industry has been fighting the providers of such applications in court because file-sharing is used to swap copyright-protected songs and movies, which the industry compares to stealing.

Napster and Aimster were successfully shut down, but the recording industry suffered a setback in March last year when the Amsterdam Appeals Court said Kazaa BV can't be held liable for the copyright-infringing actions of users of the Kazaa file-sharing application. The decision is being appealed at the Supreme Court of the Netherlands, which is expected to rule in October.