Free Music

I see many people are asking: if we drop the restriction on the file sharing, how will the artists get paid? My guess is, just how they were getting paid before the sound recording was invented. Those who think that no good music will be written/played are just spreading the propaganda for the recording industry. No matter how easy it is to share files, artists will always get paid for live performances and for endorsing stuff (given they are famous). As of today, I'm getting close to advocating non-commercial piracy - yes, an act of civil disobedience - as means of shifting the public opinion. I certainly stand for a new legal standard in that area, and the rest of this rant is to back up my claims.

I use the word "piracy" throughout the document to mean, more or less, "making an unauthorized digital copy of a copyrighted work for personal use". I think that using this shortcut greatly improves readability and I will not enter into a discussion about the semantics here, for they are largely irrelevant. Note that I do not encourage any form of commercial piracy.

The biggest problem with the modern copyright law is that it's unenforceable. It seeks to prevent an unauthorized distribution of information, but it was written back in the days when no one could predict just how easy and cheap the distribution will become. The law was designed to combat instances of centralized distribution. It was assumed that in order to hurt the sales of the recorded music one would have to set up a shop and start manufacturing LPs, tapes, CDs, etc. Such an attempt would be easy to spot; it would also be easy to identify the offender of the copyright and to collect the evidence of the infringement that took place.

The distribution model we have today is very different. The pirate is an individual, and the "theft" is happening in the privacy of our houses. The whole idea of p2p is that there's no middle man (except the ISP, and they already washed their hands). (This link will take you to the EFF's page where they outline the RIAA's mostly unsuccessful legal efforts.) To fight the piracy effectively, they will need to tap our wires, to know what we are doing behind the closed doors.

The following analogy will illustrate this point further. Alice bought a music CD in the store, and then ripped it on her computer, obtaining some .ogg files. Next day Bob came over to her house and she burned a copy for him. Here we have an illegal production of copies, followed by an illegal distribution. However, what do you want Charley, and FBI agent, to do? He has no evidence that the criminal activity took place, and he'll never get any, unless he starts spying on random people. Piracy as shown is perfectly private, because, unlike theft, it does not involve anyone except the people who participate in it. Nothing tangible is taken away from an artist, a publisher, or a retailer. Artists don't loose anything except an opportunity to get paid (indeed, they are getting more recognition in the process).

I think that p2p, when approached by the law enforcement, is similar to the exchange I just described. One obvious difference is that Alice and Bob are "strangers". This allows the recording industry to assert that the crime is indeed happening, and they are doing that simply by logging onto the p2p network and downloading files.

However, being "strangers" works both ways, and even now the recording industry is having tremendous difficulties while trying to identify the sharers. All they know about a pirate is the IP address (which identifies a computer on the Internet) and may be the MAC address (which identifies the network adapter). When they go to the court with that information, they have to face Internet Service Providers who are trying to protect their clients' identities, and are generally unwilling to do any work without the recording industry reimbursing them.

However, this is the point where copyright holder's luck runs out. A new generation of the file sharing software is taking into account the clients' security concerns. Here are just three major ways in which it's being done:

With these tricks implemented, p2p users become "almost perfect strangers". RI still knows that the file sharing is taking place, but now they don't have a good reason to blame their suspects; when they identify the host which provided them with the illegally copied work, the sharer may still plead that she was a proxy and has no control over the shared content anyway. I see only two ways out of this predicament: spying on everyone, or outlawing the p2p as a technology, and making it illegal to run the software which transfers the information without a client having a total control over the content. But then, we would have to first shut down all ISPs, because they are doing just that.

* * *

OK, so here's the big picture: we are moving towards the economy in which the availability of the information is determined solely by the demand: high demand dramatically reduces the distribution cost, all the way to zero. Interesting pieces of information, once let loose, virtually distribute themselves. Moreover, for the reasons stated above, the control over the distribution of a particular piece of information can only be achieved at the cost of invading the privacy of individuals and/or completely controlling the distribution of the information, which is incongruous with the free speech paradigm. Advocates of the free speech must therefore reject the idea of "intellectual property" in favor of a notion which does not affect the distribution, like "authorship", and strive to bring about a legal reform that would make the music recordings free.


Technical details of the Freenet Project , one of the leading efforts in constructing a totally anonymous, distributed information storage and retrieval system.

EFF's page concerning the file sharing.


2004-03-28 - original.