Trading commercially copyrighted material illegally over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks, such as Kazaa, Bit Torrent and Gnutella, is a problem that is simply not going to disappear. Everyone involved needs to realize that, accept it and move on. I understand this is far easier said than done (otherwise it wouldn’t be an issue) but the ime, money and effort wasted to prosecute the maintainers of P2P networks does more to improve their anonymity and increase illegal sharing than to deter it.
Now it looks like HBO is poisoning torrents of the show Rome. Frankly, they’re in their right to do so and I think the way they’re doing it – by putting up data that fools the downloading programs intp believeing they have real parts of the show, when it actually just contains bogus data – is actually kind of clever and far more effective than litigation. There will eventually be an end-run around these methods (there already is, actually, it’s just a bit inconvenient) so its effectiveness is limited.
The problem with most P2P networks is that, to any rational individual, they look as though they were built specifically for the purpose of trading copyrighted music and videos. That was certainly the case for Napster – there was no other purpose for its existence than to trade music files. I have never, ever downloaded a freely available, non-copyrighted work of any kind from Kazaa. Heck, I don’t trust anything on there that’s executable for fear of acquiring a virus or worm.
Bit Torrent, on the other hand, has a clear purpose other than sharing copyright works. Rather than going on line and browsing through other peoples’ offerings, Bit Torrent typically requires you get a link directly to the file you want, not unlike visitng a web page and clicking on a link to some other web page. You can Google for Bit Torrent links, and clearly some folks are posting linsk to things they shouldn’t be sharing, but I’d argue that this is a secondary function.
The primary function for Bit Torrent is the distribution of large files without incurring a massive amount of bandwidth expenses. A perfect example of this is Knoppix. Knoppix is a system you can burn to a CD that allows you to run Linux without having to install it on your computer. It’s incredibly inavluable as both an exploration and computer forensics/diagnostic tool. IT holds a cherished place in my computer repair toolbox. Best of all, it’s completely free – I can download it, make dozens of copies and hand them out to anyone I see without paying a dime to anyone. So long as I’m not selling it to people and claiming it as my own, I’m free to pretty much do whatever I want with it, including change it so that it barely resembles the original. In fact, I recently installed several kiosks for one of our clients and used a custom-built Knoppix disk to run each one to reduce the chances of system corruption by a rough public.
The only problem with Knoppix is that it’s a 650MB download. If you run a web site, you know that there’s a limit to the amount of data your visitors can download, which is often referred to as “purchased bandwidth”. On RobZazueta.com, my purchased bandwidth maximum is 100GB a month. Everything after that costs me about $2/GB. If I were to host Knoppix on my site, only about 150 people could download each month it before I reached that mximum. After that, my web host would charge me about $1.33 per download. Considering that thousands of people download Knoppix each month, there’s no way I could do that without charging for Knoppix or going into the poorhouse.
This is a common problem. Anyone who creates fun videos for people to download for free (and here I’m thinking of folks like The Lonely Island or Red vs. Blue) has experienced the panic of having to cover a huge bandwidth bill once they’ve gained some popularity. Bit Torrent can help these people by allowing a few initial folks to get the whole download, then offer bits and pieces of it to each subsequent downloader. So, if I get Knoppix via Bit Torrent and leave the Bit Torrent downloader open for a while, when you start downloading Knoppix you can get some of it from me, some of it from the original site and some of it from every other person who has downloaded it before you. By doing this, the bandwidth necessarily for these downloads is spread over a much wider audience and no single individual is stuck with an enormous bandwidth bill. It’s actually quite an elegant solution.
The folks using Bit Torrent to distribute copyrighted materials are poisoning it far worse than companies like HBO. Already, the RIAA and MPAA have their eye on Bit Torrent and are threatening legal action. Since Bit Torrent is pretty much the work of a bunch of independant programmers who do it for the love of programming and benefits to their fellow geeks rather than profit, it may only take on filed lawsuit to knock it off the Internet. Even if the lawsuit is unsuccessful in prosecuting anyone, the legal costs alone are devastating. The folks who support Bit Torrent would do better to bring it to commercial software developers, like Symantec, Microsoft and others to demonstrate to them how they can use it to cut distribution costs. If I download an uncracked version of Microsoft Office XP through Bit Torrent, I’ll still need the product key to use it. If I visit the Microsoft Office web site and purchase it online, they can send me that code in an email. In the mean time, I can immediately begin downloading it through Bit Torrent. Once the download is complete, I can enter my legally obtained product code and begin using my complete purchased version of the software. The costs of burning the program to disks, packaging it in boxes, shipping it to retailers and paying for primate shelf space have been completely removed from the equation, fattening the software publisher’s bottom line.
This is hardly an original idea – you can already download many of Symantec’s offerings (i.e. Norton Antivirus, Systemworks, etc.) without ever touching a box. But they still face the cost of bandwidth, which is cheap but certainly not negligable or free. Bit Torrent makes it a faster, more efficent and cheaper deal for everyone involved.
Copyright exists for a reason – to protect the creators of materials that are intangible in nature – such as images, words and music – but can take on many physical forms. The argument against copyright is really that the patrons of these arts – music publishers, book publishers and film producers – are typically the ones to control the rights to them, not the original creators. The idea is that they take these rights and exploit them for profit in exchange for some value, usually royalties, paid to the originators. When both sides get their equal value out of the deal, it’s actually quite fair. Powerful publishing houses, however, often use their influence and intimidation to squeeze every bit of value they can out of a work, leaving the originator with far less to gain than the distributor. Trading copyright materials illegally is seen by many as a rebellious act against these unfair trade practices. In truth, though, everyone eventually loses, as anything that can be gotten for free will usually be valued at that price as well. Our cultural capital really deserves better treatment than that, otherwise we risk losing the originators of such works to pursuits that are less creative and more personally profitable.
In other words, if you really want to win the “copyfight”, support systems that equally benefit the content’s creators, producers and distributors. Or buy directly from the originators, many of whom are now realizing that the traditional distribution deals are no longer the dream and necessity they once were. Money is the abstract representaion of value. By paying for something, you’re demonstrating that you value it and allowing its creators to redistribute that value in such a way as to produce more valuable things. It’s really an investment into culture, one that’s extremely worthwhile and can only go to benefit our society.