October 15, 2001 6:10 PM PDT

Online music wars inspire new weaponry

The recording industry is experimenting with new technology it hopes can smother online song swapping by targeting music traders' computers directly.

The record, movie and software industries have long pursued a controversial campaign that identifies people trading large numbers of songs though services such as MusicCity, OpenNap or Gnutella. Once the people are identified, the groups attempt to persuade Internet service providers (ISPs) to shut down those individuals' Internet connections.

But copyright holders, including record labels, are now experimenting with new ways to cut down on copyright infringement.

As described by sources at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), one method uses software to masquerade as a file-swapper online. Once the software has found a computer offering a certain song, it attempts to block other potential traders from downloading the song.

Already a potentially contentious plan, the recording industry inadvertently sparked a further wave of criticism last week with plans to protect its strategy from being undermined by a pending antiterrorism bill.

RIAA lobbyists sought a provision to the bill that would shield copyright holders for any damage done to computers in the pursuit of copyright protection--a goal that critics charged was too broad and might even give the group the ability to spread viruses in the pursuit of pirates.

"We referred to it as the 'license to virus,'" said one congressional staffer. "It would have given them the incentive to employ lots of hackers trying to figure out how to stop (MusicCity), Morpheus or Audiogalaxy."

An RIAA spokesman said the group was simply trying to protect its existing tools, not expand them.

"We have a legitimate concern that the measure currently being debated could unintentionally take away a remedy currently available to us under law that helps us combat piracy," said RIAA spokesman Jano Cabrera.

The direct approach
Copyright holders have been struggling for years to put the brakes on accelerating online piracy of music, movies and software, now centered in peer-to-peer services that have replaced Napster. Lawsuits filed against Napster, Scour, Aimster, MusicCity, Kazaa and Grokster have shut down some of these file-swapping gathering points, but the practice remains as popular as ever.

This is the first evidence of a technological campaign by copyright holders that would mount a direct technological counter strike on the file-swappers themselves.

The new strategy would take advantage of file-swapping networks' own weaknesses, amplifying them to the point where download services appear even more clogged and slow to function than they are today. Because most peer-to-peer services are unregulated, the quality of connections and speed of downloads already varies wildly based on time of day and geographic location.

The software technology, according to industry sources, would essentially act as a downloader, repeatedly requesting the same file and downloading it very slowly, essentially preventing others from accessing the file. While stopping short of a full denial-of-service attack, the method could substantially clog the target computer's Internet connection.

Record labels hope to make the point that subscription services such as MusicNet or Pressplay, which will launch on Yahoo, America Online, MSN and RealNetworks by year's end, will not be subject to the same doubtful quality of service.

It's unclear yet how much time and money any record label or industry group is willing to devote to the project. Given the huge number of file-swappers online, using this kind of direct-action technique against even a small percentage of song-traders could quickly soak up technical and financial resources.

Appetite for more?
According to industry sources, the technology is being provided by outside technology companies and has not yet found its way into wide use. But the Washington battle indicates that the industry is willing to protect its ability to use its own technological tools against its high-tech adversaries.

A copy of the legislation proposed by the RIAA last week would appear to have given the group broad latitude to attack file-swappers' computers without suffering any civil liability.

No civil liability would result from "any impairment of the availability of data, a program, a system or information, resulting from measures taken by an owner of copyright," the proposed text read.

That language never made it into the antiterrorism bill, however. Several legislators of both parties objected, and the RIAA's text was dropped. Industry lobbyists are pursuing a different tack that they say would still allow them to pursue the current technological plan, however.

The new technological techniques, which would essentially hog a file-traders' Net connection so that genuine song-seekers couldn't get in, are expected to be taken up across the copyright holder community.

A representative for the Motion Picture Association of America, which has also aggressively pursued online pirates, declined to comment on that organization's plans.

 

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