Freedom for Media not Free Media

Freedom for Media not Free Media 150x150 Freedom for Media not Free MediaYesterday a friend suggested reading an article in Time magazine. The magazine was the decade edition printed in December 2010 summing up how they felt about the last ten years and analysing articles written ten years ago to see if they were right or wrong. 

One article stuck out more than the rest and that was ‘The Men Who Stole the World’, if you are into file sharing either as a concerned industry head or an avid sharer of free media, read this to really find out what’s going on. It was the first time in a long while that I have read a printed publication; I think I’m going to do it more often.

This article will try to do justice to the original article. There are four men in this world whose names and creations are more than worth knowing about. The creations are computer code that allowed the world to share media in a way not seen before. These men are Shawn Fanning, Jon Lech Johansen, Justin Frankel and Bram Cohen.

Shawn Fanning (American) in 1999 created Napster the program that projected peer-to-peer file sharing into the global arena. Napster relied on a central server and was eventually shut-down under the weight of numerous law suits.

Jon Lech Johansen (Norwegian), at the age of 15 together with two unknown programmers wrote a program that decrypted commercial DVDs. ‘DVD Jon’ as he is known did not create this program to make money or to disrupt the movie industry, he built the program so he could watch DVDs using Linux. At the time Linux did not have a DVD playing program so Jon took it upon himself to make one. The Norwegian authorities had him in front of a judge twice on hacking charges; he was however acquitted twice.

Justin Frankel (American), built WinAmp which helped to drive the Mp3 generation, within 18 months 15 million people had downloaded it. Frankel then went onto build Gnutella, if you don’t know what Gnutella is I suggest you read about it. In short it was the first decentralised peer-to-peer network incapable of being shut-off by a single switch; Justin Frankel was 21 when he finished writing that code. In 2007, it was the most popular file sharing network with more than a 40% market share.

Bram Cohen at the age of 26, created BitTorrent the file-sharing program used to transport huge chunks of data. Estimates suggest in 2009 that BitTorrent accounts for 27%-55% of all Internet traffic depending on geographical location.

The point is that the movie and music industry were convinced that these ingenious bits of code would destroy the market and these men were pirates trying to steal hard earned cash from artist. Most people thought that illegal file-sharing would actually kill the scene and no artists would have any incentive to make art. This of course has not happened, people still make movies and music, and people still make lots of money. In fact Fanning, Jon, Frankel and Cohen never thought of themselves as pirates but simply wanted media to be free as liberated, not financially free.

Their stories show exactly what I mean; all four men make money legally and have not pursued a hacking career. Frankel’s WinAmp and his company Nullsoft was purchased for around $100 million by AOL. Frankel was then an AOL employee and was soon a very unhappy one. Working for AOL meant that he had to basically write programs that made money and made the users use them in a restricted way. Frankel states ‘no one cared about how users actually experienced it.’ Money first user experience second. Frankel built Gnutella on the side and released it for free, I’m sure as a two fingered gesture to AOL, saying ‘See? AOL can bring you good things!’ This was not exactly palatable with AOL executives and Frankel soon left in 2004. Gnutella as stated above is a hugely successful program that could potentially make millions, Frankel walked away from it and did not make a penny. He never intended to make money, but released it as an experiment. The music industry has had to adapt for sure, the pop industry may have suffered and independent artists may have prospered. As a music lover myself I think that is nothing but a good thing.

The inventor of BitTorrent Bram Cohen tried to make money from torrents by going into business with 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros and MGM. This venture failed after one year, time and time again it has been proven that you can’t compete with free. Shawn Fanning also tried by creating Snocap to try and sell music to people by using a Napster style system. Another problem with torrents is that it is too fast, in order to make money from file-sharing the data stream needs to be controlled and restricted. The files themselves also need to include DRM (digital rights management) technology again to restrict what users can do.

DRM is exactly what these guys have the problem with. This is where freedom over free comes in. After you have purchased a file you should be free to do what you want with it much like with a physical book, you can write in it or lend it to a friend. Most hackers do not support the free sharing of files in terms of money, but want to see the industry stop controlling the media that is purchased legally. The biggest perpetrated of the over use of DRM technology has got to be Apple, but to be fair to them they have created an easy user experience. Most people find it very difficult to use downloading software like BitTorrent and would rather pay Apple to download their media. I personally hate using iTunes and really hate the way it controls your music. If you know how to sift through all the porn, spam and malware when downloading you can stay away from the Apple. Good ol’ DVD Jon has worked his magic again and has reversed engineered Fairplay the Apple DRM software. Jon is working with his team to ‘build a system that will allow these devices to interoperate and provide consumers with a great media experience.’ The system is called doubleTwist, it can translate, reconcile and organise files from 500 different devices. The doubleTwist slogan is “The Cure for iPhone Envy. Your iTunes library on any device. In seconds.”

If I was an artist and people were using my art for free I would be angry about that. Everybody deserves to be rewarded for their hard work, but this is an over- simplified way of looking at the current industry. Between the artist and consumer is a whole load of middle men from executives, managers, salesmen etc. These middle men have been getting stupidly rich for many years and it’s them that the hackers are mad at and want to take back some of the cash. It is there job to make money not great original art. CD albums, DVD movies and computer games are simply too expensive and often low quality. The other point is that people are still making money even though file-sharing is so wide-spread. Another good thing is that independent artists are finding it easier to get their art out there and can even compete with the pop-artists. I’ll leave you with this quote from Jon:

“I support fair use, which means that when you actually legally acquire content, you should have the right to use that content on any of your devices, using any application.”

Freedom for media not free media.