Over the past few weeks I have received many questions about the legality and ethics of the different filesharing questions I have worked on. Lanovision/Coffeeshop and filesharing in general. I was quoted several times in a Yale Herald article
, a VC who is giving me some advice about the Yale 50K business plan contest, along with
The Current Law
On March 29th the Supreme Court will hear arguments in the MGM v. Grokster case. The 9th Court of Appeals held
that Grokster was not illegal because they had neither centralized control over the network nor any specific knowledge of infringement. The court said that since there was a significant non-infringing use of the software, Grokster could not be held liable. This decision followed the precedent of the Sony v. Betamax case where the Supreme Court held that Betamax was not liable for the infringment of people making copies of videos.
Napster and Aimster were both found liable for infringement in two separate court cases. The big difference was that they operated centralized servers that people could search to find files.
What the law should be
The lawsuit against the p2p companies is fascinating study of how perception can create legal reality. The entire world wide web could be divided into three basic functions: web serving, DNS, and search. The Internet is a system of computers that are all running webservers. A system of Domain Name Servers (DNS) create names by which these computers can be located on the web and can be linked to. Finally, search is what allows people to find information that could be located anywhere in the billions of pages that exist. Kazaa, Morpheus, and Grokster are very simply programs that combine these three functions into a single program. Kazaa serves files, automatically locates other computers, and then searches them. That is why ruling Kazaa illegal is so dangerous - you risk making the very software that runs the Internet illegal!
I actually believe that the RIAA and MPIAA are correct in suing the individuals who share files. Imagine if someone had thousands of copyrighted mp3's on their computer, installed a webserver, registered the domain name "freemp3s.com", and then popularized their site for all to go to. It would be a no brainer that the site should be shut down. Even if it was a 12-year old girl, we would understand why she was being sued. Yet using Kazaa is the exact same thing. From a legal standpoint, the RIAA would have been much better off if it started suing individuals in mass the moment that Napster and Kazaa appeared. Of course, it wanted to try to go after the software makers first because suing ordinary people is terrible PR.
Morality of Filesharing
Of course today, most filesharing is no longer done using Kazaa. It is done over Bittorrent, using AIM, by using the combo of iTunes/MyTunes/OurTunes. This kind of sharing is done in a smaller network and thus legally much harder discover and prosecute.
Take the typical college student Sam. Sam likes to hang out and watch a few hours of TV a day. Most of the stuff he watches is of pretty dubious quality - Pimp My Ride, Real World, Texas Hold 'em, etc. There are a few good shows out there, but mostly he is just wasting time. But one day Sam downloads the Ultimate File Sharing Program. This program allows him to watch any movie or TV Show ever made absolutely instantly. Suddenly instead of settling for the crap on TV he can watch Office Space, City of God,Shawshank Redemption, Family Guy, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, or any of hundreds of thousands of videos. Sam is now funnier, more cultured, and less bored than he was before. Is not this an objective improvement in his situation? No one is harmed by him downloading these movies - unlike stealing a DVD from a store, when you download a program the other person still has it
Of course, if no one paid for movies, movie companies would quickly stop producing movies. I think that the best thing to happen is that we have a very messy balance, with lots of different things tried, and new models will appear. I think that sharing in a small network such as iTunes is a good thing, after all, someone still has to buy the music originally. I also think that the media companies are very resistant to change and that file sharing is the only way to push them to offer the services that technology makes possible.
Currently, 90% of the cost of music is marketing and distribution. Only 10% goes to production and to paying the artist. One of our ideas with Coffeeshop was that if listening to music was socially mapped you could analyze the popularity of new songs across social networks to detect who were going to be hit artists. The idea of paying for A&R men and expensive promotions is ridiculous in the Intenet age.
With Lanovision, it would be awesome to integrate Lanovision, Bittorrent, and feedback algorithms to distribute and promote the best of originally created video.
Lawrence Lessig has described how
many media industries were born out of a mess of piracy and legally questionable actions. For instance, movie companies originally moved out to Hollywood in part to avoid the controls of Thomas Edison's patents. I believe that the same will happen with music and video. The Internet opens up entirely new ways of doing things. We must be open as much as possible to innovation, try many things, and have a Wild West type of attitude.
The Morality of Filesharing