Beware the piracy clones

The cost of distributing media digitally is trending towards zero. It's time the industry stopped the denial, and business commentators learnt how digital technology actually works.

There's a reason Silicon Valley doesn't engage in a "serious effort" to prevent piracy. It's impossible.

John Gapper's piece last Friday is typical of the bleating from those who may know all about business and law but seem to know sod all about information theory and how the internet's digital technology actually works.

"Silicon Valley damages itself with its persistent scaremongering over efforts to crack down on piracy. By refusing to engage in a serious effort to prevent it -- instead equating copyright enforcement with censorship, or with 'breaking the internet' -- it undermines its credibility," Gapper wrote.

"If the internet industry wants to demonstrate good faith, it should suggest what might work, not endlessly protest."

He reckons the industry has "ducked that challenge" of developing a solution to privacy, and considers the explanation "Piracy is bad but [fill in the blank] is the wrong solution" to be an "empty talking point".

I'll come to Gapper's own talking points in a moment, but nowhere in his article does he address one unavoidable aspect of digital technology.

If a stream of digital data exists, it can be copied.

Indeed, it must be copied, from storage medium to the working space of a device's random access memory (RAM) to the memory of the components that turn it into sounds and moving pictures.

Whatever magic solutions the technically-naive might propose must eventually face this fundamental fact. If data is encrypted it must be decrypted to use. Software copy protection mechanisms can themselves be copied, or hacked. Hardware can be cloned.

Even if, say, a live video stream is encoded in a way that can only be decoded by a specific combination of hardware serial number, internet protocol (IP) address and timestamp, we still come back to the fact that an unencumbered copy must eventually exist in memory somewhere in order to be used.

Solutions that rely on proprietary hardware assume that that's the only hardware that'll ever be available. Could that be possible? No, because it'd mean no-one could ever make a new electronic device ever unless they agreed to do so within the confines of some secure hardware manufacturing facility -- and the criminalisation of possession of, um, ordinary electronic components.

As information security megastar Bruce Schneier said more than a decade ago, "What the entertainment industry is trying to do is to use technology to contradict that natural law. They want a practical way to make copying hard enough to save their existing business. But they are doomed to fail."

As Schneier said in 2006: "Trying to make digital files uncopyable is like trying to make water not wet."

If a stream of digital data exists, it can be copied.

"Silicon Valley" doesn't pursue this chimera because its engineers actually know their subject and don't waste their time on a fantasy. Unless, of course, they're snake oil merchants trying to con someone out of a few million.

Perpetual motion machines, anyone?

Not that there's any such thing as an undifferentiated blob of geeks that you could even label "Silicon Valley". Worldviews there are somewhat diverse.

Then there's the whole problem of determining whether a stream of digital data that can be identified as a specific copyrighted work moving from one place to another is being copied legally or illegally. It depends on the context.

If I have a movie on one computer and I move it to another because I'm upgrading my hardware, or if I make a backup copy and store it on a remote site so it won't be wiped out by a disaster, or if I stream music from my computer at home to my desk at work -- all that is perfectly legitimate. How do you differentiate that legitimate activity from criminal copying?

The industry's answer seems to be shoot first and ask questions later.

Gapper rejects the industry's linking of copyright enforcement tools with censorship, but he's ignoring the fact that the decision process is identical. You're deciding that someone may or may not access certain content. The tools to do this are identical. It's just a matter of differing criteria for making the decision to block or allow access.

That means all the explanations for why internet filtering won't work apply equally to this discussion. Indeed, the makers of anti-piracy tools show up at internet censorship discussions explaining how their wares might help.

I'll give Gapper credit for one thing, though. He questions the Motion Picture Association of America's claim that theUSeconomy loses $58 billion annually to copyright infringement, although that's actually only $185 a head.

Even if it's true, at less than $4 a week it sounds more like families simply choosing to re-watch an old favourite on a $10 DVD from Kmart rather than forking out $80 taking everyone to the cinema and falling victim to the popcorn rort.

Or kids choosing to make their own videos, post them on Facebook and chat about them, rather than passively watching the dross pumped out by the broadcast networks. We already know that TV usage is starting to decline. Only slowly, but it doesn't take much to hit $4 a week.

All in all, we're simply seeing the business of controlling the distribution of media on physical objects (atoms) disappear as the cost of distributing it digitally (bits) trends towards zero.

It's about time the industry stopped the denial. After all, an article like this could have been written a decade ago. Indeed, many were.

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