How the Music Industry Caused the Current Bittorrent Explosion

By: Art Reisman

Art Reisman CTO

Art Reisman is the CTO of APconnections. APconnections designs and manufactures the popular NetEqualizer bandwidth shaper.

Originally published April 4, 2008

Update Dec 18 , 2008: The RIAA announced a new tactic over the weekend.  The ironic twist is that by our accounts the old tactic of vigorous enforcement was working. We were seeing (on the hundreds of networks we support) far fewer bittorrents running when compared to two years ago. I’d estimate the drop to be about 80 percent.  I am not sure if our observations were indicative of the industry trend, but by our accounts, pirated material must have been on the decline. We’ll be putting together a more detailed article shortly.

Flash back to the year 2000, Napster hits the scene and becomes the site of choice for anybody trying to download online music.

It is important to understand that the original Napster had a centralized infrastructure. All file transfers happened via the coordination of a central server. Had the music industry embraced this model, they would likely have had a smooth transition from their brick and mortar channel to a soft distribution. Had they only been a bit more farsighted as to the consequences of their actions.

Instead of embracing Napster, the music industry, along with the RIAA (the industry henchman for copyright enforcement), worked to shut Napster down, much the same way they had successfully gone after commercial establishments that play unlicensed music.

There were some smaller label artists that did embrace Napster, obviously looking for untapped market share, but for the most part the industry reacted like a obsolete dinosaur fighting progress out of fear of losing revenue.

I was personally experimenting with downloading music at this time. If Bill Clinton and Obama can admit to illegal drug use, I should be able to confess to one or two illegal downloads without retribution (note: I have since licensed all my music in my library). It wasn’t the free music that attracted me to Napster in 2000, but rather the convenience of getting the tracks I wanted when I wanted them.

Well, the RIAA succeeded in getting an injunction against Napster and shutting them down in February 2001.

This would turn out to be a costly mistake.

It was no coincidence that shortly after the fall of Napster a whole heard of new file sharing techniques showed up. BearShare, Kazaa, Gnutella, Limewire, and Bittorrent all became popular seemingly overnight and once again copyrighted material was being spread all over the world. Only this time it was not coming from a centralized server, but from millions of servers. Now, instead of having one source where music distribution could be tracked, the music industry had a wasp nest of swarming downloads.

Although today there are many paying customers of legal downloads, black market peer-to-peer file sharing still runs rampant, and this time it is not possible to squash the distribution model . Bittorents are themselves not the cause of illegal file sharing, no more than automobiles cause drunk driving. The industry cannot possibly shut down a freely distributed file sharing model without shutting down the Internet itself, and obviously the distribution channel is not guilty of piracy but the people that us it are. Instead, the RIAA has adopted a policy of making examples by tracking down and arresting individual copy right distributors, a daunting and possibly futile task.

For example, it is extremely difficult to get a subpoena to far off corners of the world where governments are concerned with more important matters.

I’ll comment on how the RIAA enforces illegal distribution and the downside of their model in my next posting.

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