Hands up who likes a good leeching? Obviously, I’m not talking about the quaint medical practice involving a blood-sucking annelid worm. No, I’m referring to a more modern activity which takes its name from the aforementioned vampire invertebrate. So, now you know what I mean, answer the question. Who leaves their PC on all the time with Bit Torrent or (maybe) KaZaa downloading ‘stuff’ 24/7? My guess would be that a fair proportion of you will be holding your hands up. You can put them down again now – I can’t see you anyway (or so you think…).
‘Leeching’ seems to go with the territory for hardware enthusiasm, or anyone who likes to take computing matters into their own hands. You may console yourself that your PC is also folding proteins to find a cure for cancer, or searching for alien life at the same time, but you’re still breaking the law. Fortunately, though, you’re unlikely ever to get caught, because the Net just wasn’t built to prevent or even monitor this kind of behaviour.
This fact has scared the heck out of the content-producing industry, as has been well publicised. Although a few particularly glaring file-sharing culprits have been successfully prosecuted, and the reports of seeding P2P networks with bad files appear to be true, the efforts of organisations like the RIAA to stop the flood of files have been like peeing into the wind. But the content industry has a secret weapon up its sleeve, which could finally spell the end of file sharing as we know it. Indeed, it could be curtains for all the little illegalities we’ve got used to like installing software for a friend, or no-CD cracks that make games much more stable than the legit version. To give you a taster of what could soon be common practice, here’s a little story.
"Leeching’ seems to go with the territory for hardware enthusiasm"
Since it was launched a few weeks ago, I’ve been an avid Napster user. I loved the original version. My esoteric musical taste had languished for years for lack of exposure to the tracks I was interested in. I’d bought too many CDs off the back of a review, only to find when I got them home that I didn’t really like them. Trying before buying is essential with music, and if you don’t have mainstream tastes then it can be hard to trial the sounds that pique your interest. So Napster rekindled my tastes, because even very obscure stuff could be found there in its heyday.
The new, Roxio-owned Napster (www.napster.co.uk) has tried to recreate this. It has one of the largest catalogues of tracks (700,000 - around the same as the recently launched iTunes for Europe), and for a tenner a month flat fee you can listen to any of them on up to three PCs at a time. You only have to pay extra if you want to record to CD or copy to a portable player. Then it’s 99p a track or £9.95 an album, which you then have to burn yourself and make your own artwork for. So you may want to buy a conventional CD instead at this point.
There are a lot of good things about Napster, but something curious happened to some of the files I’d downloaded (but not yet purchased) the other day. I went to play them, and they were no longer available. Neither were any tracks from that record label. Napster’s DRM (digital rights management) system, which operates using Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 9, had taken note of the fact that Napster’s deal with that record label was on hold, and had deleted the tracks from my hard drive.
Something like this could well happen across the board in the future – not just with entertainment content, but with software too. Microsoft’s Bill Gates has gone on record that the next big version of Windows, codenamed Longhorn, will have something called Trusted Computing (www.trustedcomputinggroup.org) at its very core. This is a cross-industry initiative, which incorporates the successor to Microsoft’s infamous Palladium. The idea is to have authentication and encryption chips hardwired into your PC, so the OS can control what you can and can’t do. That way, if your subscription to Microsoft Word runs out, it could disappear from your system. You can forget about writing any more documents, and maybe even viewing the ones you’ve already written as well.
The intellectual property war now permeates everything. Companies like Monsanto have patented genetically modified crop seed, so that farmers can’t replant last year’s seed without facing a lawsuit. They’d love to create crops that grow once in abundance but are then infertile, locking you into purchasing again each year. If the large corporations have their way, nobody except them will own anything – you’ll have to keep paying regular fees to use any technology they’ve produced. As a content producer myself, part of me is glad to see technology that makes it easier for intellectual property creators to force users to pay to use content. But the technology that’s currently being developed to lock down the Web has the potential to seriously abuse our rights.
"Napster’s DRM... had deleted the tracks from my hard drive"
As a former magazine editor who spent a decade evangelising the merits of the printed word, I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with the Web. And as someone who makes a living out of writing, I’ve been very sceptical about the open source movement as well. Both seemed to be giving away valuable content for free, potentially jeopardising my chances of earning enough to live on. With most of the magazines blindly jumping on the Internet bandwagon and giving their content away for free on the Web, it has been no surprise that even the successful PC titles have seen their circulations drop by 30 per cent, and some well established brands like PC Magazine disappeared completely. Huge amounts of advertising revenue have left printed magazines, but this hasn’t transferred over to the Web. It’s just disappeared. So even in my former industry, the Web free-for-all has been destructive, just as the recording industry feels it was for them.
Something clearly had to change. The Net has made it far more difficult to make money out of content. The difficulty and poor quality of copying with analog systems like paper magazines and LP records needed to be reinvented for the Web. But what appears to be on the cards could go much further than what we had before. Your paper copy of PC Pro won’t become unreadable when your subscription runs out, or if you switch to PC Plus. But this would be easy to implement for the electronic version with technology like Trusted Computing. Then, if you no longer pay your Bit-tech sub, even the articles you’d downloaded would become unreadable.
In the future, our every move could be logged and controlled by intellectual property management. This fact, more than anything, could mean that computer users split into two camps – the mainstream who don’t mind their computing lives being dictated by Microsoft and its cohorts, and those who want to retain the ability (and the right) to tinker with their PCs and software, like we always have. Don’t kid yourself that this is just about technology. This is politics, good and proper. It’s time to start thinking which side you’re on.