- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 3, 2004

Everyone has heard of downloading copyrighted music and other intellectual property from the Internet, which music labels and software houses say costs them millions.

But much more is involved than lost sales for Microsoft and the Recording Industry Association of America. Downloading represents a shift in how the world works.

Can piracy be stopped? The RIAA has been trying for years with lawsuits and technical means of preventing copying and downloading. But Internet file sharing continues at a tremendous rate. Everyone with a CD burner can simply copy CDs for friends.

Things are getting worse for the big companies. As DVD burners come down in price, burning copies of movies becomes more common. The spread of broadband Internet connections increasingly allows the downloading of whole movies. Software as well is copied and downloaded.

Today file sharing is done through “peer-to-peer” networks such as Kazaa.

“Peer-to-peer activity corresponds to at least one-fifth of Internet traffic and is likely to continue to grow relentlessly in the future,” Thomas Karagiannis, a researcher at the University of California, told Technology Review.

At this writing, various schemes to prevent piracy are being tried or discussed. So far, little has worked.

A recent approach to protecting software is to require “activation,” so that the software can be installed on only one machine. But this makes life difficult for legitimate users. And, the world is full of very bright computer types who can simply remove the protection. Once broken, forever shared.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to ending piracy is the lack of cooperation from the public. Some youths have no scruples about getting free music. But it isn’t only just youths. I’m a reasonably respectable guy in my 50s. My friends are decent people who wouldn’t steal your silverware. They all either download music or burn copies of CDs and DVDs for friends or pirate software.

It is done casually. There’s no furtiveness, no sense that some might regard it as being in bad taste. Many deeply resent the RIAA and see piracy as a Robin Hood operation. It is hard to feel sorry that Bill Gates is losing money.

The prevailing view seems to be that anything digital is in the public domain. It might be compared to preventing drinking during Prohibition.

According to the Business Software Alliance, piracy costs the software houses about $13 billion a year. The numbers can mislead: Many people will pirate a $600 photo-editing program to edit hobby photographs.

The economic pressure to pirate is particularly strong in poor countries where $600 is perhaps the annual per capita income. The difficulty is that many abroad simply can’t pay the first-world prices charged by software houses, and yet they have to have the software. Computers are not optional any longer. For that matter, a teenager in Thailand can’t pay $17 for a music CD. The incentive to pirate is very powerful.

TechNewsWorld says the rate of piracy of software in China is above 90 percent. What it comes to is that if people can pirate, they will. Short of an unforeseen magic solution, I think piracy can be stopped only by massive, federally enforced, probably unconstitutional, and profoundly intrusive policing of the Internet. Otherwise, for better or for worse, we had better get used to piracy.

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