Digital World: The finger in the dike

The Internet has everything, it seems; of course, there's plenty of history among the billions of Web pages out there - but there are also clear signs of the future.

By DAVID SHAMAH
February 13, 2007 07:39

 
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The Internet has everything, it seems; of course, there's plenty of history among the billions of Web pages out there - but there are also clear signs of the future. First the future. Some music distribution services seemingly have come to the (apparently correct) conclusion that no matter how many software routines they put in MP3 files to prevent them from being copied, and no matter how many people they try to sue for sharing illegally downloaded music files, they are basically trying to hold back a tidal wave by sticking their fingers into a very holey dike. So at least one company - EMI, which, among other properties, has in its copyrighted music the Beatles catalog - has signed licensing deals with several P2P (peer-to-peer) music downloading services, including Mashboxx (http://www.mashboxx.com/newrelease.html) and Qtrax (http://www.qtrax.com). At least one, Qtrax, will be supported by ads and allow at least some free, unrestricted downloads. Both these services are pending, while EMI prepares its electronic catalog for distribution. If you read Chinese, you don't have to wait for either of these services to begin operating, though. A Chinese site called Baidu (http://www.baidu.com) has all the commercially released music you could possibly want, from all the major labels, freely available for download - and it's all legal, according to a Chinese court that ruled for the company against the eight largest music distributors in the world (http://tinyurl.com/2x4s5y). You've probably never heard of Baidu, but the site, called the "Chinese Google," is the fourth most popular site in the world. Seen from that perspective, EMI's decision isn't "forward looking" or "radical" as looking for a new financial model really is their only option. The Chinese court said the Baidu site could not be held responsible for its use by individuals to download copyrighted content, a decision that basically means that, if the major music labels want to halt piracy in China (a country notorious for piracy), they are going to have to sue a few hundred million Chinese. Trying to figure out other ways to make money off your assets seems like a lot better way to spend your time and talent that sicking lawyers on all and sundry who violate your copyrights. Next in line to learn this lesson were the TV networks in the US. The "copyright line" for television programs has always been less clear than for music, which you had to go to a store to purchase if you wanted a hi-fidelity copy. Since the invention of the video recorder, however, the same (or close enough) quality video presentation has been available for free to viewers who watch when their favorite show is on air, as it is to those who recorded their program to watch later or to archive. The free-to-air networks (CBS, NBC etc.) already essentially "give away" their creations for free use by the consumer, and support the practice with advertising. Looking at it from this perspective, sharing TV programs in digital file form - which one could have watched or recorded for free anyway - is not as major an issue as downloading copyrighted music. The question of "free" sharing is a little less relevant to cable TV, which you have to pay money to view - but with cable so ubiquitous, and most people interested in getting a digital file of cable programming already a subscriber anyway, that point is almost moot. Or so goes the thinking among many who write me about this issue. At first glance, it seems that the major American networks learned their lesson, because you can watch many of their programs on their Web sites (and, as I wrote a couple of months ago, we in Israel can enjoy these shows too by using a Web proxy, as described at http://tinyurl.com/23w7ee). But, surprisingly, at least one network would rather keep doing things the old, hard way. Several weeks ago, the Fox network threatened to sue YouTube because episodes of The Simpsons and 24 were posted by users of the site (http://tinyurl.com/2g4ey3). And, oddly at about the same time, Peekvid (http://www.peekvid.com) stopped working, as well. Peekvid, admittedly, was clearly violating all sorts of copyrights; but closing them down is just another finger in the dike, and Fox, as well as any other media company, is just not going to be able to stem the tide much longer. Peekvid, for those who came to know it during its relatively short life, was a site where viewers could watch copyrighted movies and TV shows to their heart's content. You watched the programs or movies on-line as they streamed to your computer; the quality wasn't particularly high and you had to wait for the stream in order to watch the show, but there it was. No more, though, as rumors abound that the same Fox network threatened the proprietors of Peekvid with all sorts of legal hell if they didn't shut down their operation. The Peekvid site now asks for an e-mail address (I wouldn't, if I were you), claiming they will notify you when they're back in operation. But there are plenty of other substitutes to take Peekvid's place - including the aforementioned YouTube, which still has tons of copyrighted files, as well as http://www.flickpeek.com, http://dailymotionmovievids.com, and http://www.alluc.de, to name just a few (for a whole bunch of streaming video choices, both legal and otherwise, check out http://www.ovguide.com). In fact, you don't even have to watch these things online; you can let them run, record them, and re-encode them to any format you want, without even installing any software whatsoever (http://heywatch.com). Again, I emphasize that I don't approve of downloading copyrighted digital files like music and movies; but I bring these Web site addresses to prove a point, that stamping one out only breeds more. Before writing this article, I didn't know any of these sites existed (save for Peekvid), but with just a little effort I was able to find them. And for each of these sites there are probably a dozen others around - this, in addition to the other methods of sharing P2P files, most notably using the Bittorrent protocol (http://tinyurl.com/2pmmlc). Online video is most certainly going to be one of the biggest things in the near future, despite dire warnings that "the Internet can't take it" (http://tinyurl.com/398pl6). Will the TV and movie people "Get with the program?" http://digital.newzgeek.com

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