Valley View: File Sharing Battles

By JOE and JOSEPH LONSDALE, UPI Business Correspondents  |  May 22, 2003 at 6:17 PM
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PALO ALTO, Calif., May 22 (UPI) -- Recording Industry companies have recently stepped up their assault on the rampant online sharing of copyrighted music and video, known as "online piracy," and their efforts have caused more than a few casualties in the massive army of file swappers.

Students, a common target of attack, are responding by doing their best to ignore or circumvent the industry's sorties.

"I got an e-mail notice last month to stop sharing a Vin Diesel movie," a Stanford senior studying Economics notes with an air of insouciance. "So now when I download movies or episodes of Family Guy, I move them to another directory (where others cannot then download from him)."

The U.S. Copyright Act enables the music industry to hold Internet Service Providers (ISPs) responsible for content on their users' computers. The relevant clause in Title 17, Chapter 5, Sec. 512(c) states that the ISP is not liable if it: "...upon notification of claimed infringement as described in paragraph (3), responds expeditiously to remove, or disable access to, the material that is claimed to be infringing or to be the subject of infringing activity."

ISPs thus notified have sent emails threatening to disconnect users unless they stop sharing specific objectionable material or provide countering evidence within a given time period. Stanford University sent this letter to the student above:

"We received a notice from Universal City Studios, Inc. that claims you have electronically downloaded, distributed or made available copyrighted materials to which you do not have such rights, in violation of United States copyright law..."

Some service providers are taking the legal implications very seriously. At University of California-Irvine, "they're pretty good at catching people -- some of my friends have gotten their access cut," says Electrical Engineering junior Cha-Cheng Xie. "The University says internet is for 'academic use.'"

What do students think about that policy?

"They don't like it," replies Mr. Xie.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) likes it. "When colleges and universities enforce their own policies against copyright infringement occurring on their campuses, it is often a wake-up call to those unaware of the serious consequences involved in engaging in this type of illegal activity," an RIAA spokeswoman said of a case at the United States Naval Academy. In a "public rebuke" of campus file-swapping, 85 naval students were threatened with court-martials after their computers were seized for illegally downloading copyrighted music.

Most universities don't directly police their students, but have implemented bandwidth-limiting policies, which attempt to deter massive file sharing. MIT, Stanford, and U.C. Santa Barbara specifically target ports used by file-sharing programs, making them much slower to use. U.C. Berkeley limits the total amount of bandwidth per student, based on a fixed amount relative to average use.

While other colleges' targeted methods seem more practical in addressing the problem, only Berkeley's method of limiting any prolonged transfer of gigabytes successfully deters rampant file swapping. "If you just bounced the request off an outside server, you could still share with a Kazaa node at T3-speed (as fast as Stanford's network goes)", says Stanford freshman Andrew Schwartz—speaking hypothetically, of course. Could Mr. Schwartz explain to several of his less tech-savvy friends how to circumvent the system in this manner? "Hypothetically, yes."

Why do so many students engage in these apparently illegal activities? "If it wasn't there (online) I wouldn't buy it...I'd either borrow my friend's CD or listen to the radio. Just because they're there, it's more convenient," explains Stanford sophomore James Hom.

But this excuse fails to delve to the heart of the matter. Without a system set up to deter students, there really is no cogent reason not to download copyrighted songs. Morality? The convenience is coupled with the near apotheosis of file-sharing after it emerged unscathed from the attempts of several "evil" forces attempting to "impinge on the freedom" of the paradigm of the internet -- this has perfectly justified the copyright violations in the minds of many students. They aren't ignominious about their actions -- they're proud.

What can be done about this irresponsible attitude? Which side will have to give in, in this bitter war of attrition of "pirates" and "greedy moguls"?

The jury is still out on the success of the irenic attempt of Apple's iTunes to create an inexpensive pay-per-download service -- 99 cents, the price of a small cheeseburger, per downloaded song. A large TV advertising campaign lies at the heart of their current attempt to create the first popular online pay-for-music site.

Perhaps more intriguing, however, is the new streaming technology that comes with Apple's iTunes4. The software allows you to play music directly off someone else's computer across a network—without having to deal with any illegal "copies".

The law prohibits methods that circumvent copyright protection, but streaming, amounting to merely listening to someone else's music with their permission, falls squarely under fair use. Unfortunately for the industry, the law says nothing about circumventing the ambiguous intention of the law. Streaming music is gaining in popularity at universities, and has the potential to be the legal replacement of the illicit file-sharing model.

Of course, with streaming an up-and-coming option, should the RIAA even bother to continue its recent patterns -- suing students for running PC tools that allow sharing of music without warning? Spending huge resources to notify universities of illegally shared songs? Anywhere with a high bandwidth connection, songs -- or any amount of encrypted data -- can always be exchanged with nobody but the sender and receiver aware of the transaction. The tactics have made much of the recording industry highly unpopular with a large part of its customer base, and it's unclear what they've accomplished.

And despite what industry would have you believe, students aren't entirely bilking the companies of their sales, and rarely settle for ersatz copies of media they'd like to own.

Discussing his downloading and purchasing habits, the student-pirate warned by Universal City Studios comments, "I've got every episode here (on my computer) ...Did I buy the new Family Guy DVD? Of course I did. Family Guy is f(very) awesome."


(Valley View is a periodic look at the world from the viewpoint of the tech-savvy in Silicon Valley. Joe Lonsdale has worked in Silicon Valley senior management for 25 years. Joseph Lonsdale was recently editor-in-chief of the Stanford Review.)

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