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<nettime> Napster Hurts Free Software

Editorial: Music Bootlegging with Napster Hurts Free Software

Posted by: Bruce Perens on Thursday May 04, @03:22AM

When Free Software authors wanted an operating system that they could
modify and share without the usual hassles of proprietary software, they
wrote a new system from scratch. Many of the same programmers who wrote
the free GNU/Linux system had access to the source code of proprietary
operating systems like the old ATT Unix, and Sun Microsystems SunOS. They
did not bootleg those systems and form a widespread underground of people
hacking on a stolen OS. They respected other people's property rights,
even when they might not have supported them. Free Software authors worked
a peaceful revolution, within the law. 

That's not what we're seeing now with Napster, and the widespread
bootlegging of music by Napster users justifies, in many people's eyes,
the way we're being prosecuted over our free software DVD players. There
are lots of casual music thieves who are taking advantage just because
it's suddenly become physically possible for them to do so. What's going
to happen before net bandwidth and bigger disk drives make it possible to
pass around movies as we do music today? I compare it to Tiananmen square.
We are enjoying the short dance of freedom before governments come in with
heavy weapons. And the worst thing about it is that we are giving them a
good reason to do so. 

The band Metallica is in the news for going after over 330,000 of their
own fans who happen to have gone into the music duplication business for
themselves. Many of these fans are legal minors, and net polemicists
correctly grieve over the "chilling effect" this will have on the free
exchange of information on the Internet. But in this case the 330,000 kids
are stealing, and the popularity of this form of theft won't ever make it
right. The kids, and their parents, should be pursued. The people who make
Napster, by taking no stand against having their products used for
bootlegging, have made themselves accomplices. 

I am a follower of Richard Stallman, the creator of the GNU project and
pioneer of the free software movement, but Richard and I don't agree on
one thing: Richard doesn't believe in ownership of intellectual property.
I believe that free software and proprietary software should peacefully
coexist. But if you grant that proprietary intellectual property has a
right to exist at all, some legal protection like copyright becomes
necessary. The important part is finding the right balance between the
rights of the copyright holder and the good of the general public. Over
time, that balance has shifted toward the rights of the copyright holder
and away from the good of the public. For example, copyright used to be an
exchange of government protection, for the author allowing his work to go
into the public domain eventually. These days, copyrights effectively
never expire. 

Many of us percieve the corrupt nature of the music industry: they do have
a lock on the business of distributing music, and the artist is often
taken advantage of by the mega-corporation. But the Internet will solve
this problem, because it lets the artists distribute directly to their
patrons. Those artists still need to be able to be compensated for their
work. Widespread bootlegging deprives them of that compensation, whether
or not the mega-corporations of the music industry are involved. 

Some of my colleagues have proposed the Street Performer Protocol as a
means of compensating artists without the need for music to be
proprietary. I'd like to see experiments like that succeed, but until they
do I think we need to continue the conventional methods of compensating
artists by allowing them to charge a fee for copies of their work. 

Thus, I'm taking a personal stand against bootlegging of music with
Napster. I'm not against the tool, but the unethical way in which it is
being used. This will no doubt make me unpopular in forums such as
Slashdot, and that's too bad. I like myself a lot better when I do what's
right, rather than what's popular. 

So, why is bootlegging with Napster hurting free software? Because it will
drive legal and physical means of further restricting intellectual
property in a way that will rule out many uses of free software. In the
future, all media will be distributed over the Internet. What we get in
the record store, the bookstore, the movie theater, and from the
television will come to our homes as digital data. Just what will we be
using to read that digital data? Computers running free software? Not if
the media producers have their way, because they see any player software
that can be modified by the user as a virtual factory of bootlegging
tools. What use will computers running free software be when they cut you
off from outside forms of information? 

The entertainment industry is turning to a technology called trusted
client. This means that a computer or player will be equipped with a
cryptography chip that identifies the user and decodes media for only that
user. And this time, they won't use weak cryptography as they did in DVD
because of export restrictions. Passing around data won't do you any good
unless you can decrypt it first. To fight that, the decryption chip will
be on your sound and video cards, so that you won't be able to get access
to the decrypted digital data with software, or it will be on the
motherboard, and the software you'll be able to run with that chip will
itself be cryptographicaly protected so that modification becomes
impossible. There's no room, in the minds of the media producers, for free
software being able to manipulate that data stream. Essentially, all media
will become play-only, with other forms of manipulation becoming

The first thing that will go away with the implementation of trusted
client technology will be the view source function of your web browser,
and the ability to save web pages. After that, trusted client will reach
television, and you'll no longer be able to fast-forward through
commercials on your VCR. That feature is already implemented for DVD disks
today. Trusted client will be protecting your music from the customer by
preventing them from using more than one player for the same work - you
won't be able to take your CDs to a friend's home to listen to them
together as you do today. Trusted client will provide the media industry
with the second sell that they envy the software industry for today. How
does that work? As media file formats become obsolete, your media
collection will become un-playable and you'll have to replace it, the way
you currently have to upgrade Microsoft Windows every few years,
essentially paying for the same product over and over again. Conversion of
file formats will be restricted, because it will be percieved as a
bootlegging tool. The media industry is even toying with the idea of
programming that expires, becomes un-playable after a particular amount of
time has elapsed. Think about books that can only be read once, and a
revival of the unlamented DIVX pay-video system, with customers forced to
use it this time or forego home viewing of feature films entirely. 

So, why is this totalitarian control of information coming? Because
widespread bootlegging of music with Napster today provides enough
justification to convince lawmakers that it's necessary. Otherwise, we
might have a small hope of protecting our freedoms, but right now it looks
like we're sunk. 

With freedom comes responsibility. It's time for us to start being good


Bruce Perens


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