net.wars: Stealing is stealing is stealing

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 23 August 2002

There are deep dark places in the earth, and deeper, darker places in the realms where hackers go ... but who goes to the deepest, darkest places?

Wendy M Grossman

John Perry Barlow, Net pioneer, Grateful Dead lyricist, and fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, commented in the dark 1990 days of law enforcement crackdown on hacking that they'd outlaw spelunking if AT&T owned all the caves. In those days, the big hacking threat was phone phreaking) and online users were a tiny minority.

Fast forward, replay. Today's "caves" are content owned by members of the Recording Industry of America and the Motion Picture Association of America and the spelunkers are - well, all of us. This week, for example, I found myself contemplating illegally turning a commercial videotape into a DVD. This is clearly an act of evil piracy. It is everything the movie studios want stopped. Now.

And, in a superb ironic twist, this noble end justifies hacking.

At least, there is an anti-p2p bill in front of Congress at the moment that would make it legal for content owners to hack a network in order to impede the illegal trade of copyrighted works. But there are plenty more pieces of mad legislation to choose from: require security chips in all hardware; illegal to remove a digital watermark from any media file (DMCA II?); allow companies to block people from trading files the companies believe to be pirated.

Meanwhile, the Department of Justice (using some new definition of "justice" that we weren't previously aware of) announced this week that it was prepared to begin prosecuting file-traders. "Stealing is stealing is stealing," John Malcolm, a deputy assistant attorney general said at the annual Progress and Freedom Foundation conference, according to reporter Declan McCullagh. (The conference itself sounds like I-hate-the-Net week.)

Although, truly my personal favorite quote of the week wasn't that one, though it took place at the same confab; it was the News Corporation president opining that the Net has become a "moral-free zone." Pornography! Spam! Rampant Piracy!

Apparently he never read anything about the Net before last week. People have been saying that probably since the first two ARPAnet nodes were hooked together. He should oughtta read his own company's newspapers. Which sometimes really are moral-free zones.

Still: I am a content owner. I am a creator. So: where do I want to hack today? The ISP that this week announced plans to block the RIAA from its network, has figured this one out.

The problem with all these pieces of legislation is that they are all based on the same bought-and-paid-for assumption: Big Media is the only source of content. The arrogant belief is that if the content were any good, Big Media would have bought and paid for it. No one could possibly have any use for the copying facilities in standard hardware except to rip them off.

Sometimes, the people defending open technology fall right into this. Recently, for example, I asked a guy promoting wireless broadband what people were going to do with it. He answered enthusiastically about being able to share copies of recent TV programs. I don't think he understood why I thought that was an unsatisfactory answer. Yes, it's nice to be able to watch the latest episode of, say, Friends four months before it's going to be broadcast where you live. But that's hardly an example of the economic or even social benefits of broadband that's going to make the case for investing in its deployment.

It seems to me that the best possible answer to the lobbying that's going on in Congress is for people to do as much of our own creating as possible and make the results available through file-sharing. My own modest contribution is to keep MP3s of my 1980 album Roseville Fair on my Web site and in a directory shared via Gnutella. (I have permission from the songwriters involved to do this.) It's arguable that what Big Media should be worried about, rather than file-sharing, is the increasing poverty of their products compared to the alternatives. The music industry didn't sell less last year because of file-sharing; it sold less last year because what it thinks is "music" just isn't very interesting. The Web shows clearly what competition from the masses can do. Stats showing that the lion's share of the traffic goes to the top ten or so sites are deceptive, since most of the top ten are search engines, portals, and Microsoft. In an analogy I've boringly used before, a lot of train traffic goes to Clapham Junction, too; it's after the gateway/crossover point that things get interesting.

Big Media is a terrific amplifier, which is why artists put up with it. But targeting the mass market instead of niches has its price in terms of depth. A defunct computer magazine might have given 300 words to a film scanner review; professional photographer Tony Sleep gives them thousands. If you're buying, which would you rather have?

Ultimately, the best option, as the founders of NTK said when they started up, is to hack the media. And this is why the demonization of file-sharing really is a much bigger issue than people think. The same technologies and laws they want to bring in under the banner of stopping theft could take away the Net's force as a competing medium. And that's what they want: the Net as just another channel.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).