Wednesday, November 10, 2004

File-sharing FUD parade

With the flurry of press-releases from the MPAA these past few weeks (in which they announce that there will be a later press-release regarding their lawsuits against individual file-sharers... they've got multiple layers of press-releases that only presage future press-releases, never actually getting to the point where they actually announce the suits), the file-sharing bugaboo has reared its ugly head in the mainstream press once again. Depending on who you listen to, file-sharing is either a truly democratic use of the internet or the hipper more technically-sophisticated horseman of the apocalypse.

As the RIAA has so capably shown in the past few years, there are a few problems with the 'scorched earth' approach to dealing with your customers. First among these is the fact that file-sharing has not impacted the hyper-inflated income of the recording industry in the slightest, except where it has increased sales. (Next time you see headlines about this, read closely - every independent study shows file-sharing to have a neutral or positive effect on music sales, while every industry study shows the exact opposite. Who are you going to believe?) People have always made tapes for each other and lent CDs to friends - the only new factor is the ease with which such trading can be done.

Another significant problem is that the legal process used, founded as it is on the highly defective DMCA, is faulty and inefficient. Using jackboot tactics blew up in the RIAA's face when the jackboot landed on 6-year-olds and 80-year-old women who didn't even know how to use a computer. The technology doesn't create a one-to-one correspondence between IP addresses and actual humans, so assigning culpability is a tricky prospect. So far the recording industry's technique has been to fill the air with lead and let the lawyers sort it out. Apparently The Customer Is Always Right... right in the line of fire.

My own personal experience with file-sharing, hailing from the Napster days, is that of watching my CD collection expand tenfold as I got turned on to music that the music and advertising industries' narrow vision kept off of the airwaves., in the early pre-lawsuit days, turned me on to a number of bands as well - they let you listen to a few songs for free, and if you decided the band didn't suck you could order the CD and hear the rest. The print industry is slowly catching on to this concept as well - publishers are placing texts online, secure in the knowledge that if their product has any merit it is its own best advertising, and having the ability to peruse the materials lets the customers make a more informed choice in their purchases.

Which is the root of the issue, actually - choice, and the efforts of corporations to restrict choice. After all, if you can choose, you can choose to avoid a company altogether, and that affects their bottom-line. Since they view you as sheep feeding at their trough, the very idea that you should have a choice at all is anathema to them.

The music and film industries have reacted with horror every time a new technology comes out - they were so sure that tape-recorders, VCRs, and CD-burners would be their downfall, because they were too fucking stupid to realize that instead of spending their money in court they could be making money by utilizing the new technologies. Once they finally figured each of those technologies out, their profits soared. The film industry makes more money from video and DVD sales than they do from the actual release of the film. I-Tunes' micropayment plan is generating millions of dollars because they give you choice and accessibility and you don't have to spend $20 to get a CD that has the one song you like. In a very real way, every time these industries relax their greed they make more money... but they never learn.

As the situation stands, something must change, and I'm pretty sure it's not going to be the recording industry's mindset. Personally I think cryptographically-secure completely anonymized file-sharing will be the final solution to the problem - if nothing else, it will force the recording industries to come up with more reasonable marketing models, which will once again bring them larger profits. In the meantime, there are some interesting efforts to create technologies that reduce the risk of file-sharing, such as the IM-integrated 'share with your buddies' network envisioned by the folks at Downhill Battle. By restricting your personal exposure to your list of friends, you then gain more secure and anonymous access to their list of friends, and the 'six degrees of separation' principle means that you can essentially connect to anyone with relative safety. It's a trust-based network.

There's a problem with this idea, though: it's been tried before. Drug dealers have used the trust-based network concept for... well, forever, probably. There are two risks: the first is that as the network expands, the likelihood that the trust boundary will contain someone who is either stupid or malign or a planted narc and who will hose the whole thing up increases exponentially. The second problem is a related parallel - even in a one-to-one transaction, if the person you are procuring from is secretly on the side of the law, they are both (a) indemnified from the mutual risk that makes such transactions seem safer and (b) completely incontestably sure that you, who have no such protections, are guilty. Oops.

Until a truly secure and anonymous delivery mechanism is found there will be problems with all such stopgap measures. As much as the technogeek in me admires the technical solutions to this problem, the real solution will come when the recording industries get with the program and adapt to the times. They could take a cue from Cory Doctorow, who is making more money giving his books away than he did selling them.

Whatever happens, this current fusillade of FUD from the MPAA is anachronistic, futile, hostile to their own customers, and entirely in line with the lack of creativity and vision these companies have shown as long as they've been around. I like to create, and I would love to support myself with my creations. But I believe that the way to do this is to be awesome, not litigious. Sure, technically file-sharers are engaging in criminal activity, but the recording industries are being complete asshats, and I think their crimes hurt artists more than the file-sharers do.

So I guess the moral of this story is the usual one on this site: fuck the bozos. Relentlessly.