Wednesday, December 22, 2004

TARGETING TECHNOLOGY. The entertainment industry is running wild again, shutting down servers that were being used to download movies illegally. Moral and legal arguments about file-sharing aside, what's significant about this is that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is going after websites that use BitTorrent, a newish piece of software that greatly speeds up the transfer of large files.

Jess Kilby wrote about BitTorrent for the Portland Phoenix back in March. Without getting too technical, the way it works is that you download a file - say, a movie - in pieces from many users, rather than as one big file. At the same time, you're automatically uploading even as you're downloading. Users say that the more people who are doing it, the faster the file transfer goes.

Because the MPAA is going after sites that apparently facilitated file-sharing rather than targeting BitTorrent itself, it would be unfair to say that the industry is trying to shut down a particular technology. Still, there are some free-speech principles here that shouldn't be overlooked.

In the 1980s, the entertainment industry actually tried to stop the sale of VCRs, then a nascent technology, arguing that their only possible use was to steal copyrighted material. But in Sony Corporation of America v. Universal Studios, Inc. (1984), the Supreme Court refused to ban VCRs, ruling that they could also be used for perfectly legal purposes, such as time-shifting. Thus was the movie biz saved from its own narrow-sightedness: videos ultimately emerged as an important new source of revenue.

On the other hand, Napster eventually lost its legal battle, with the federal courts ruling that its music-sharing service could be used for almost nothing but copyright violation. (Today's Napster has nothing to do with the original service; an existing service merely acquired the name.)

What may be significant here is that the original Napster was not just a service that facilitated the trading of music files, copyrighted and not. It was also a software concept that has been abandoned, lest others run afoul of the law. Newer services, such as KaZaA and LimeWire, are better protected legally because they do not compile a centralized file of what's available - but they're also harder to use.

I'm rambling this morning. Sorry about that. What is the significance of all this with regard to BitTorrent? Simply this: like the original Napster, it can be used for illegal file-sharing. But like the VCR, it also has many legal uses. In the nascent world of podcasting, for instance, BitTorrent can be used to speed the transfer of large audio files produced by DIY radio programmers.

It's one thing for the MPAA to go after those who would steal movies. It's quite another if its quest to protect its copyright interests harms an idea that is still in its earliest stages. The industry tried and failed to kill the VCR. Let's hope it fails this time as well.

TRASHING HISTORY. The Boston Globe reports today that time is running out for the historic Gaiety Theatre. In October, Kristen Lombardi wrote a comprehensive piece on this outrage for the Boston Phoenix.

ABOUT TIME. The Boston Herald reports today that the US attorney's office has begun a criminal investigation into the leaks and cost overruns at the Big Dig. Maybe there's nothing there. But this has got to be looked at.

MOVING ON. Bay Windows, which covers the city's gay and lesbian community, has a new editor - Susan Ryan-Vollmar, the former news editor of the Phoenix. Susan makes the announcement on her weblog.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The entertainment industry isn't targeting technology, only sites that post links to copyrighted material. Podcasters can post torrent links with impunity.