Don’t Ban Technology to Solve Copyright Problems


The recording industry seems to believe that there is no greaterenemy of all that is good and wonderful than peer-to-peer (P2P)file-sharing technologies. Thus the Recording Industry Associationof America's campaign to sue grandkids and grandparents who violatecopyrights by swapping songs.

The RIAA is within its rights to challenge lawbreakers, nomatter how minor. Not legitimate is its lobbying campaign to shutdown the P2P business. Ultimately individuals, not technologies,such as the KaZaA Media Desktop, are to blame for copyrightviolations.

Copyright-cheaters have been around since copyrights werecreated. New technologies-photocopiers, tape recorders, VCRs, DVDs,and P2P software-have simply made it easier to illicitly copyprotected works.

Industry has occasionally demanded heavy-handed restrictions onand even prohibitions of technological innovation, but more oftenhas worked to increase awareness of and compliance with the law.Firms also have cut prices and developed new markets, such asApple's iTunes Music Store, which charges for music online.However, the RIAA blames a one-third decline in music sales overthe last three years on file-sharing. In contrast, ForresterResearch places the drop at about 15 percent, only a third of whichcan be attributed to file sharing.

Still, old-fashioned enforcement has its place. Of course, theRIAA's efforts might antagonize potential customers. And thecampaign might be doomed over the long-term. After all, we live ina "downloading culture," observes Katie Hafner of the New YorkTimes. Moreover, some systems already try to shield their usersfrom outside prying eyes. Further, programmers are working to"improve" their file-sharing software through use of encryption,among other techniques. Nevertheless, the RIAA is entitled totry.

But large recording firms have not stopped with attempting toenforce the law. They want to destroy a technology simply becauseit is used by some cheaters. The RIAA might be able to build a caseif the technology served no function other than criminal. Yet,explains American University law professor Peter Jaszi, "It's fartoo early in the day to conclude that everything everyone does withpeer-to-peer, even when it comes to copyrighted MP3 files, isconclusively infringing."

Even now P2P is used to share government publications andprivate works in the public domain or where the copyright-holderhas granted permission. The potential for using file-sharing tofurther improve computer communication and networking is vast. SaysLance Cottrell, president of a software firm, "Music was just thefirst killer app, but I think it will be the first of many."

The recording industry also might be justified in targetingtechnology designed to facilitate law-breaking. For instance, theold Napster maintained a directory of users' files being shared.That is not the case with technology like KaZaA (the most popularfile-sharing software), Gnutella, Grokster, iMesh, and Morpheus,where there is no central server.

Unable to win its case on copyright grounds, the RIAA hasresorted to demagoguery, claiming that P2P technology promoteschild pornography. Andrew Lack, President of Sony Music, says "P2Pstands for piracy to pornography." It's a ludicrous argument. TheNational Center for Missing and Exploited Children says that P2Paccounts for just two percent of referrals regarding childpornography, compared to 77 percent for websites.

Indeed, as Alan Morris, Executive Vice President of SharmanNetworks Limited, recently told the Senate Judiciary Committee,some porn merchants create sites to take advantage of misspellings,such as, "so that individuals making common typingmistakes, including children, would be connected to advertisingsites, including those for pornographic materials, from which theycould not easily exit." And even the most casual email user isdeluged with invitations to watch the most carnal activities.

Nor is P2P particularly useful for pedophiles. Explains Morris:"To make their 'collections' publicly available on P2P is counterto their cloak of secrecy. Law enforcement agencies quickly pickedthem off and so they retreated back to their sordid encryptedsites, newsgroups and the like."

Moreover, RIAA's members have little credibility in campaigningagainst pornography. Many pop songs are littered with soft-corereferences to casual sex; Gangster Rap glories in degrading anddestructive lyrics. When the Federal Trade Commission reviewed 55different recordings with explicit content labels, it concludedthat all included teens in their target audience.

The best answer to internet pornography is the same as tosalacious music lyrics: parental involvement. Family filters canhelp. But legislating against P2P technologies would have noappreciable effect. Human beings are enormously creative;unfortunately, that creativity can be used for ill as well as good.So it is with the Internet. To protect freedom while ensuringresponsibility, punish the sinner, not the technology.

Doug Bandow

Doug Bandow is senior fellow at the Cato Institute. This article originally appeared in The Washington Times on October 2, 2003. To subscribe, or see a list of all previous TechKnowledge articles, visit