Why Web-based file swapping is unstoppable
A study by four Microsoft engineers concludes that efforts to curb the growth of file sharing via Internet are futile.
AFTER SPENDING millions of dollars trying to shut down Internet websites that allowed users to swap files, and funding technology to make audio CDs uncopyable, the world's recorded music industry may finally have to accept a harsh reality: this is one game it cannot win.
An authoritative study conducted by Microsoft researchers has just concluded that `peer-to-peer' sharing of files by Internet users is unstoppable. It also finds that technology that tries to prevent PC users from `ripping' that is, copying compact disks (CDs) and digital video disks (DVDs) is `doomed to failure'.
The study presented recently at a workshop on `digital rights management' (DRM) organized in Washington DC, by the association for computing machinery (ACM), was the work of four scientists in the cryptography division of Microsoft.
Their findings have become the Net's hottest subject of discussion and are being claimed as a victory for the average music lover and PC owner, whose right to share music resources and play CDs on a platform of choice, has been increasingly under threat from music companies screaming `Piracy!'
In a highly publicised court case in the U.S., the popular music-swapping site Napster, was forced into closure and eventual liquidation by the recording industry association of America (RIAA) which represents companies like Universal, EMI, BMG and Warner who have a strong presence in India.
However file swapping facilitators sprung back to life under new avatars the Dutch KaZaA(kazaa.com), the U.S. Morpheus (musiccity.com) and the West Indian Grokster (Grokster.com). Unlike Napster these services had no central clearing house: one user directly linked to another to exchange files, so there was no entity to sue or shut down.
Anupam Chander, Professor of Law at the University of California at Davis, wrote last week in his web column "KaZaA's true power remains unrecognised... its peer-to-peer system, allow consumers to communicate directly with each other, bypassing expensive middlemen".
It is this fundamental principle that the study by Peter Biddle, Paul England, Marcus Peinado and Bryan Willman suggests, cannot be throttled because any restrictive technology will soon be neutralised by canny programmers. The researchers trace the evolution of what they call `Darknet'.
Its earliest form, prior to 1990 was what they term `Sneakernet' the exchange of music or computer programmes on floppy disk or cassette tape. When you bought a piece of legal software or a music tape you thought nothing of making a copy for friends and relatives. It was clearly a `dark' area ethically speaking but the industry did not bother because the scale was so small. By 1998, World Wide Web was available and the MP3 format had become popular as an efficient way to digitally store music.
The Net became a convenient carrier of such data. However the quantum jump came in 1999 with the emergence of centralised clearing houses like Napster which helped the seeker find a user who had the file or track to share. The phenomenal popularity of Napster led to its eventual shut down after U.S. court decisions decided that it was a conduit for the exchange of copyrighted material.
But the death of Napster saw the rapid re-emergence of file sharing utilities, which overcame its main drawback the existence of a central `exchange'. Gnutella and other clones, neatly bypassed this by distributing the storage as well as the data base so as to render it virtually undetectable. However the authors warn that users of the Gnutella-like sites are not as anonymous as they may think: the server endpoints can easily be determined. It is only the numbers that inhibit the music industry from targeting individual swappers.
For the same reason the music industry is perceived to be alienating core customers by releasing copy-protected CDs which can only be played on dedicated players and not on PCs, not even on `PlayStation' type games machines that kids worldwide tend to use. Such CDs have not been officially released in India by the music majors though in places like Delhi's Palika Bazaar and Chennai's Burma Bazaar, they can be had for Rs. 300 or more.
The Microsoft study concludes that file swappers will always find a way as long as they perceive that the product they are swapping is too pricey to obtain by other legal means. There is another reason: exchange of free material on the Net is the basis of many worthy Net based collaborations that involve ego less peer-to-peer computing.
Huge international programmes that try to find a cure for cancer, or solve a massive equation in genetics depend on millions of lay PC owners giving their free computing power so that a worldwide connected computer of awesome capability is virtually created.
Such meaningful applications will continue to drive the technology of Net-based file swapping and it will make the current travails of a small number of commercially driven intellectual property holders seem like a minor blip on a lily-white scenario.
There is much speculation on why Microsoft would fund such a study (though the conclusions are said to be the authors' alone): A `conspiracy theory' going the rounds suggests that the real reason why the software giant is doing this research is because the resultant anxiety would create the right climate to launch a new product it is developing: a `Secure PC' that would allow playing but prevent the CD Read-Write Drive from duplicating CDs or DVDs.
But while this might gladden the hearts of the recording industry, lay users might not take too kindly to being sold a CD writer that doesn't do its intended job write.
The Microsoft engineers' paper can be downloaded from the programme site of the DRM conference: http://crypto.stanford.edu/DRM2002/prog.html. Anupam Chander's commentary on the legal aspects of file sharing can be accessed at : http://writ.findlaw.com/commentary/20021024_chander.html
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