WITH LORD PETER MANDELSON stepping off of his media mogul friend’s yacht recently and announcing his newly found dislike for the peer-to-peer file sharer, Internet “piracy” has once again become a hot topic. Admittedly fanning the flames a little, the Inquirer sat down with a few key players involved in the current state of online file sharing to discuss the industry’s future developments and, perhaps more importantly, its legal status.
The first big shot we got hold of was Gary Fung, the owner, creator and admin of isohunt.com, one of the world’s largest torrent search engines. In case you have been living under a rock for the past half-decade, torrent files link multiple users to “trackers” that allow them to connect to one another in order to download legal or illegal content. We began our discussion by asking him to lay out his and his site’s background. Initially isohunt.com began as a programming experiment way back in 2002, but with the growth of torrent usage in 2003, “it just exploded”, rapidly expanding into the industry heavyweight it is today.
Getting into the spirit of things a little, I asked him to give his thoughts on Internet piracy, for which I was immediately chastised. Fung stated “the word Piracy is a sensational word”, describing it as a word more akin to “murder and pillaging on the high seas” and that it was being misused by the entertainment industry and their lobbyists to “spread the false message that file sharing equates to stealing”, which he adamantly denies. Showing he knows what he’s talking about, I was quickly inundated with URLs to studies on growing revenue streams which seemed to show that, despite the growth of peer to peer file sharing, box office revenue had increased.
Ultimately Fung said that the “distribution of all media is being decentralised”, concluding that the reason the media corporations were kicking up such a fuss about illegal downloading is that it’s them that are losing the revenue, not the artists.
These ideals were at odds however with John Lovelock from the Federation Against Software Theft, or FAST. His organisation serves as a middle ground between the end users and the software developers, often negotiating between both parties out of court when “over licensing” occurs. When quizzed about his thoughts on “piracy”, Lovelock quoted the oft touted statistics that several hundreds of millions of pounds were “lost” each year to online file sharing, and that “in principle” at least, he was very much against it.
Expecting this response to some extent, I had pre-emptively asked Fung about his thoughts on this paradigm and he responded with another swath of studies to back up his simple and succinct answer - “Complete lies.”
This situation seems to highlight the difficulty of effectively mapping and understanding something that’s dubbed illegal, as it’s simply not monitored as legal alternatives are. Also, no one is able to say whether those who download multimedia illegally would still do so in a sanctioned fashion. Granted Fung’s study seems to suggest that money was indeed not being lost, or at least, that revenue increased despite it.
Our third interviewee attempts a different perspective still. Steve Purdham is CEO of WE7.com, a service similar to the equally-popular Spotify that acts as a “giant jukebox”. It hosts an extensive library of music, allowing people to “search, click and instantly play full songs or albums for free". He acknowledged the arguments of both parties, but said that most people don’t “steal” music, or at least don’t “believe they are stealing music, they’re just listening to it". This is the argument that has plagued this situation from the beginning - is listening stealing?
While he felt he had already pretty much answered this question, when I asked Fung what he thought of the old stealing paradigm, he countered that when something is stolen, something has to have been lost by the “victim". Since his studies showed that “there’s no evidence of harm to the industry’s revenues” and that as they had in fact gone up, despite the growth of peer to peer technology, “it bursts any notion that file sharing is stealing".
However the point he followed it up with was an interesting one. He described that torrents and other forms of file sharing had become the “new radio”, a simple “promotional channel and a way to connect with fans". While radio stations may pay a premium for certain music, the audience ultimately pays nothing to listen to the station’s tracks, so the concept of free listening - at least at a consumer level - is not a new one. Perhaps though it’s time for a new outlet. Purdham evidently agrees believing that, “focus should be on the future” and that “the Internet has changed the basis of music consumption,” and that we “need to reflect that in the economic models".
Purdham continued by saying that while services like WE7 were one way of doing things, there’s no reason that others shouldn’t be created, offering different ways for people to pay for and enjoy their media. He believes that the “future has to allow access to media, stream or download, and give the consumer the choice how to pay, free, subscription or buy".
Surprisingly to some extent, this sentiment was echoed by Lovelock, who said that he believed subscription models like Spotify and pay-per-download services like Itunes were great. From his standpoint, he believed that “virtualised software” was very much the way forward, with “pay per use models” paving the way to the future.
It’s an interesting conclusion that organisations like FAST, sites like Isohunt and WE7, all seem to be moving forward with new alternatives to traditional distribution methods, despite their occasionally conflicting ideals. However, while they might have the future in their hands, the present is quickly becoming a situation that file sharers should be wary of. Calls for ISP cut offs, and the fining methods pioneered in the states are making their way over to Blighty with surprising speed; the witch hunt is on.
Fung describes the methods as “particularly alarming” in that the lobbyists and lawmakers would go so far as to “vilify file sharing, at the cost of fundamental freedoms in use of the Internet". Keeping up with his linking behaviour, Fung pointed me to an interesting read that the homeless value the Internet almost as much as food and shelter. When asked about his opinions on cut offs and letters in the mail, Lovelock from FAST said that, “the law is very strict with IP theft” and that despite his support for the mail method he believed that "only the hardcore criminal element need to be criminalised”. This suggests his distaste for the fining procedure adopted by our Western cousins across the pond, especially as “70 percent of [sharers] would probably stop, according to surveys” on receiving a warning letter.
It seems, ultimately, that everyone is on the same page, apart from the politicians and top end media moguls. No one agrees that downloading media illegally is the way forward, with even Isohunt’s Fung saying that he “respects copyright law” and complies with takedowns “whenever a copyright owner requests it”. Each of their plans for subscription models with more easily downloadable or streaming media seem to sit pretty evenly with one another. Purdham is planning to expand WE7 with new pricing models and an even wider variety of music, hoping to increase the company’s exposure among artists and the public, while FAST is evidently looking to move more towards virtualisation of software, undoubtedly allowing those who can’t afford the more expensive applications to have access to them for periods of time based on their usage needs.
Fung however is going a different route; in a similar vein with something he calls “Hexagon". This is a tool that works in a similar manner “to how brands use Facebook pages to connect with consumers as fans”, but takes it a step further with more discrete “groups”. Each one found within the Hexagon system works effectively as their own site, in which members “post their own videos, torrents and discussions” which should organise “the typical chaos in everything being shared” as while offering membership, groups can also be selective. Fung also plans to soon implement a pay-what-you-want scheme in what he hopes will “reconcile the difference between unrestrained sharing and sharing promoted by content creators". This was shown by bands like Radiohead to work very well indeed, with some fans even paying more than the normal price tag when given the choice.
The current state of file sharing is a precarious one. It’s something that vast numbers take part in, knowingly or not so. Youtube, for example, is a prime location for the uninitiated to break current copyright laws. That said, however uncertain the present is it seems that the future is definitely a bright one and as long as those that partake in nefarious acquisitions of hit movies and music keep their heads down and media corporations don’t turn them into the soft drug users of the 21st century, file sharing platforms that suit both parties aren’t that far away. If we all just wait a little longer, they will have their chance to become the dominant media distribution platforms of the years to come. µ