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Technology vs. Copyrighted Material


Today we have computers that can do hundreds of billions of operations every second. We have a global network that could only be brought down by World War III. We can squeeze the same amount of information that's in a college library through the most fragile wires running around on circuit boards and across telephone poles, and then archive it all on thin discs of plastic and aluminum. We have file formats for everything.

Putting it all together, we could copy everything we ever wanted and send it to half a million people halfway across the world in just seconds. It's all bound to collide with copyright law eventually.

In 1998, just after the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, the MP3 file format was discovered. The MP3 version of a high-quality recording is so small that it is fairly easy to store thousands of them on hard disks and send them over the Internet. The recording industry didn't like this very well, since the MP3 format didn't incorporate any copy protection and the files were easily mass-distributed. They began to go after web sites with MP3 files on them and companies making MP3 players, forcing them to shut down or make players incompatible with the MP3 format. For a while, the recording industry was given a chance to come up with their own access-controlled file format and distribution methods, but they didn't come up with anything. Giving up on waiting, the public decided to do it their own way: send millions of pirated copies of copyrighted material spiraling across the Internet. (Litman 154)

In 1996, Michael Robertson started MP3.com. Artists could create accounts and upload MP3's, and users could download them or order CD's. One of the services offered, MyMP3.com, allowed one to instantly copy MP3's into their own accounts, using a CD containing the song for authorization. Despite the performing rights licenses from ASCAP and BMI, the recording industry pounced on it. (Litman 157)

While the fate of MP3.com was being decided, a college freshman named Shawn Fanning created Napster and uploaded it to the Internet for free download. Before the product was even officially released, the recording industry pounced on it. Napster argued that they didn't actually do anything illegal; they kicked off 335,435 members after Metallica complained about people pirating their music, they didn't actually store the music on their servers, the users themselves were making the file transfers, and the service had legal uses. Still, the court found in favor of the recording industry and gave Napster two days to shut down. During those two days, Napster traffic doubled and servers offering similar services were overloaded. (Litman 158)

Scour.com was a search engine and file sharing service for music and video. The search engine's results pointed to both legitimately distributed files and unauthorized copies of copyrighted material made by other people. Still, the content industry pounced on it, saying it promoted piracy. (Litman 160) A similar search engine service called MP3Board.com was also pounced on. (Litman 162)

iCraveTV was a Canadian web site that rebroadcasted Toronto TV signals on the Internet. Canadian and United States copyright laws allow cable companies to rebroadcast TV signals, but the nature of the Internet made it impossible to stop people from outside Canada, where Canadian copyright law didn't apply, from watching. iCraveTV was ordered to be shut down. (Litman 162)

RecordTV.com was a service started by David Simon. It allowed users to send a request to record a TV show and watch it over the Internet later. The recording would only be shown to the user who requested it, and couldn't be saved, so the performance of the recording was private. Private performances are completely legal in the real world, so RecordTV.com must have been completely legal too. The motion picture industry disagreed and pounced on it. (Litman 162)

The only thing these companies were trying to do was take something that was completely legal in the real world and put it on the Internet. Recording something on a VCR is legal; lending a friend a CD is legal; cable companies rebroadcasting TV signals is legal; copying a CD you bought onto your computer in the form of MP3 files is legal. But for some reason, it doesn't transfer well to computer networks. The real world has a certain geometry: the distance between two points is a straight line. It takes a while to get anywhere. The Internet, on the other hand, has a completely different geometry: the distance between two points is a single mouse click. When given an entirely different world, the old rules no longer work, just like the definitions and theorems of Euclidean geometry fail in the Internet geometry.


"A society reaches the highest level of development when it is able to invent something in which none of its rules work anymore." -- Jon Bettencourt (Hey, that's me!)