Tuesday, June 17, 2008



In the New York Times Bits blog, Brad Stone points us to an interesting University of Washington study that shows how easy it is to fool the organizations that are sending out “takedown notices” that accuse Internet users of illegally downloading copyrighted material (the PDF of the study’s report is here).

Some background and terminology, first, for the less techie readers:

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA, PDF here) does two main things that are relevant here:

  1. It makes it easier to prosecute the use of the Internet to violate copyright protection.
  2. It makes it illegal to provide tools to bypass copyright protection, even if the providers of the tools do not themselves violate any copyrights.
There is, of course, disagreement about whether these are good things, but there it is. The second point, for reference, is what was used to take down Napster a few years ago.

Peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P) is a technique wherein individual computers trade files — or, more significantly, fragments of files — with each other, without going through a central server. If you buy a song from iTunes, you’re downloading a file from a server. But if you download a song through a P2P system, the most common of which (right now) is BitTorrent, you’re getting various chunks of the song’s data file from various computers — peers, since they’re just computers belonging to other people like you — all over the Internet.

The P2P method allows you to get different pieces of the file at the same time, often getting the whole thing to you more quickly than from a server. It also allows you to interrupt things and come back later for the missing pieces. It means that no one computer has to have the capacity to provide the entire file. And once you have the first piece or two, you can become the peer that provides those pieces to another user.

But the thing that annoys the copyright owners here is that it’s rather like spies passing around a parcel in an espionage movie: there are random people all over the place that are passing bits back and forth, and it’s difficult for them to have any control over it. The copyright owners can’t stop people from sharing the copyrighted material for free.

What they’ve done instead — where “they” includes organizations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) — is to track the P2P users down after the fact, using data collected from other peers on the network (some of which they own) and often enlisting the assistance of colleges and service providers in identifying their users. They then threaten the users, sending takedown notices ordering them to stop and demanding compensation for files the organizations claim were already copied.

Only, now the folks at University of Washington show how flawed the techniques are for tracking the users down. They’ve gotten hundreds of takedown notices sent from the RIAA and MPAA, accusing Internet addresses that they can prove are innocent — in some cases, the addresses belong to printers, devices incapable of downloading music and movies.

I see battles between expert witnesses coming, as these results are used to challenge takedown notices in court. Until now, many college students have been intimidated into paying extortion to the industry organizations, cowed by threats of even more expensive judgments in court if they didn’t take the shortcut offer. There’s now a clear way to cast legal doubt on the whole process.

I do not support the theft of copyrighted material. But neither do I support the strong-arm tactics of these organizations, and, as I’ve said here before, I think the industry has to adjust its attitude and its business model to the way the Internet works and is used.

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