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The unfortunate downside to Freenet is that it’s just ratcheted up the illegal distribution of copyrighted material by an order of magnitude. Not to mention child porn and other nasty things. Those are negatives Clarke already has grown weary of addressing, especially when there are more pressing technical questions to answer.
Like how easily his system might spread Trojan-horse viruses. Ian says Freenet’s users must be vigilant and trade only with trusted sources, indicated by digital signatures. If you clicked open an “I Love You” e-mail . . . for your own sake, stay the hell away from Freenet. Says Clarke, “I also feel that the ease with which people could open the ‘I Love You’ attachment in Microsoft’s e-mail software was the cause of this problem. We wouldn’t make it so easy to do this with Freenet.”
One of the most interesting unanswered questions could prove to be the Achilles’ heel of Freenet: Just how do you find relevant information in a network that relies on “keys” arbitrarily assigned by users? In a library, you know a search for Michael Jordan is bound to turn up material on the basketball player. On Freenet, “Michael Jordan” might be the key to someone’s pictures of naked Barbie dolls. Clarke says the problem is self-correcting. Freenet files move about according to demand. Put up something stupid, and it will eventually drop off the system. One of the next tasks for the consortium of volunteer programmers developing Freenet is to implement a search engine, Clarke adds.
And what happens when you combine an easy-to-use search engine and interface with multimedia files? You come up with Beverly Hills–based Scour.com, also created by early-20-somethings. Only these guys from UCLA have no problem with becoming obscenely rich.
Although the legal and media attention in the online copyright wars has focused on Napster and MP3.com, Scour.com, which went online in 1997, inadvertently enables users to access a wide range of copyrighted film and music titles without paying. Oh, and the company carries a heavy dose of irony: One of its backers is Michael Ovitz.
Go on Scour and do a search on movie titles (if you’re in the film industry, you may want to have a lawyer and a bottle of smelling salts by your side). On a recent foray, American Beauty and Gladiatorwere unavailable, but I got hits for both The Matrix and Fight Club, albeit broken up into several files. The files were stored on i-drive, a free Internet storage service also started by a UCLA grad, with which Scour has a business relationship.
Despite the odor of copyright infringement, both i-drive and Scour may be as innocent as the owner of a storage facility who rented to a guy who used the space to stash dead bodies. Senior executives at both companies would very much like to stay out of the line of fire. Says Jeff Bonforte, CEO of i-drive, “We need to help studios and labels solve these problems. We make our money off relationships, not people sharing things illegally.” In almost the same words, both executives explain that they are in compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The DMCA requires that they remove files only after they have received a “conforming notice” from the copyright owner. And as Craig Grossman, general counsel for Scour, explains, “Our goal is to get it right. Congress gave us a law that has some ambiguities, but the notice and conforming process are pretty clear . . . The lesson to users is, you’ve got responsibilities.”
On the other hand, “I don’t think anyone, even the labels themselves, believe they can solve the problems in the courtroom,” says Bonforte. “You could shut down Napster tomorrow, and MP3s will still be traded — because digital distribution makes so much sense.” The problem, then, is how do you get people to pay for the stuff? Says Jeff Taylor, a spokesperson for the MPAA, “Some people are doing things online they wouldn’t contemplate doing on terra firma — they’d never go into a store and put a DVD in their backpack.”
One answer is called “Digital Rights Management” (DRM), software that encrypts media files and unscrambles them only when the user forks over a fee. With DRM in place, a person who went to open a downloaded file from Napster — or even Freenet — would see a notice asking for payment to be sent on to the original copyright holder. Theoretically, it’s a make-everybody-happy solution. But industry experts disagree on when or if various proposed DRM schemes can work.
Dan Rodrigues, president and co-founder of Scour (and only a year older than Ian Clarke), says, “I don’t think anybody’s hit the Holy Grail, but I think you will see the pieces come together. There might be a free model, where you give up some personal information or go through a lot of ads first. There could also be a subscription model, and possibly even a model where you pay for premium and secure digital downloads. Ultimately there will be several different ways of paying for convenience, from credit cards to paying with eyeballs, as you do with free television.”