- The Washington Times - Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Today, a battlefield report from the file-sharing wars.

As most people now know, but a few may not, the entertainment industry is fighting to stop people from sharing (stealing, the industry would say) copyrighted music and movies over the Internet.

This struggle has gone on for years now. The Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America desperately try every imaginable legal and technical means to stop it.

The magnitude of sharing, and the openness with which it is done, are enlightening. A popular program for sharing files — video, music, documents and photos — is called Limewire.com. The popular download site download.com said, as I write this, that Limewire has been downloaded 70,537,357 times.

It is not the only sharing program out there by a long shot. They proliferate, occasionally are slapped down with lawsuits by the industry, and pop up in different forms: Morpheus, Kazaa, EDonkey, EMule, Shareaza, BitTorrent.

Many come in free versions, often with bundled adware, or paid versions without it, downloaded using a credit card or PayPal. Downloading copyright material is not the only use of these programs, of course. Countless legitimate uses exist. But the programs are heavily used for grabbing music. I know people who have downloaded 1,500 songs.

Perhaps the industry will yet come up with a way to stop it. At this point, it hasn’t. For practical purposes the Internet has made music a free public utility. Legal or not, the system works very well.

For example, like other programs of its kind, Limewire is slick and user friendly. You enter “Elvis Presley” in the artist box, or “Hound Dog” in the title box, and up pops a long list of computers around the world that are willing to share the King’s work, along with connection speeds and bit rates. You click on one that suits you. With fast Internet connections, a download may take a few seconds or a few minutes.

It’s wild. In many ways file sharing parallels the drug business. Just as you can get any drug you want almost anywhere in the United States, conveniently and at affordable prices, as you can download any music anywhere. The delivery is startlingly efficient and, in effect, virtually legal.

Neither industry nor government could have done it so well. While the morality of both is debatable, as examples of consumer-driven free enterprise they boggle the mind.

The problem the industry faces is that countless very bright programmers believe that all information should be free. The idea is obviously debatable, but it doesn’t matter.

So far, they have been able to crack the various protections that the industry has tried. When lawsuits shut down Napster, the first sharing program, others popped up that did not use centralized servers and were impossible to sue. Today’s anarchistic coders talk about encrypting files and making downloads hard to trace. The war goes on.

How much does technology shape morality? The Internet is doing to information what contraception did for (or to) sex: Not just making it available, but changing the way people regard it. When it is so very easy to download a song, with no penalty attached, people will do it. Respectable, otherwise honest people will do it. Many don’t care that their children do it. Perhaps in principle they think it a bit wrong, but hey, free stuff warps the mind.

The industry had better either pull a rabbit out of a hat, or get used to it.

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