A game of cat and mouse

Geoff, a South African software developer, says that he downloaded about 30 gigabytes of music to his computer over the past year. This collection, which, depending on the quality of the files, would take him about 20 days of continuous playing just to listen to, didn’t cost him a cent — he downloaded it all from the Internet.

What Geoff is doing is not uncommon, even in South Africa. He says his friends all download music, using peer-to-peer networking services such as BitTorrent, Morpheus or WinMX, or by searching for the illegal download sites that pop up and vanish.

It’s a continuous game of cat and mouse with organisations such as the International Society for the Performing Arts and the World Intellectual Property Organisation, who are fighting a losing battle against pirates on the Internet.

Geoff knows that what he is doing is wrong, as does James, who says he has more than 13 000 songs and 500 movies on his computer — all stolen.

When asked whether he cares that what he is doing is illegal, he says: “No, not really. So many people do it as well, my general feeling tends to be that the amount of MP3s that I download is rather insignificant compared to the amounts that some people pull each day.”

Around the world, the use of the Internet to trade in copyrighted material — especially music and video files — is expanding exponentially.

In the United States the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has been going after what it calls “illegal file-sharing” with a vengeance, suing individuals, companies and universities that it suspects of participating in the exchange of music files, usually MP3 format files, across the Internet.

In South Africa, the RIAA’s local affiliate, the Recording Industry of South Africa (Risa), says that although it is aware of the use of the Internet to illegally share music, it has not yet attempted to prosecute anyone.

Braam Schoeman, manager of the anti-piracy enforcement unit at Risa, says that the biggest problem in South Africa is the sale of counterfeit CDs and cassettes, but it is aware of the potential of the Internet, and is already moving to halt Net piracy before it gets off the ground.

According to Schoeman, among its plans are awareness campaigns, which will entail visiting schools to “change the minds of children” about the trading of files over the Internet.

The plans also include working with universities and companies to “furnish them with a policy” as to how to control their networks to prevent the spread of pirated music, videos and software.

James, who has been downloading from the Internet since he was in high school, doesn’t think the proposed awareness campaign would make a difference to his, or his friends’, behaviour: “Most definitely not. Piracy has become a major part of Internet culture. All my friends I know through the Net do it, and so I started doing it as well. If there is a song that I really like, I would just download it rather than buy the CD for just that one song.”

James is now at university, and he and his friends are still downloading music, using the university’s network. This is common — both the RIAA and Risa have identified university networks as being a major vector of illegal file sharing.

The RIAA has been targeting American universities, using the courts to force them to reveal the names of students using peer-to-peer file-sharing, and then prosecuting them. Fred Potgieter, MD of the South African Federation Against Copyright Theft (Safact), agrees that university networks are a prime source of illegal files, being one of the places with substantial amounts of bandwidth in South Africa. He adds, though, that Safact is expecting file-sharing to increase across South Africa as broadband access becomes more available.

Julie-Anne Doyle, head of consumer products at Internet service provider (ISP) Tiscali South Africa, agrees, saying that their broadband users are downloading far more data than dial-up subscribers, attributing the increased demand to the desire for customised media content. She says Tiscali encourages responsible surfing, but adds that it is impossible for the ISP to control what surfers do.

The problem is far more complex than it seems. Even if ISPs banned all transfer of MP3 or video files, users would simply rename the files, making it impossible for automated programmes to tell what the file is, says Geoff.

He adds that there is nothing inherently illegal about the MP3 format, it is just a way of compressing audio.

The issue is similar with peer- to-peer networks such as Kazaa or WinMX. There is nothing inherently wrong with sharing files using this method. Cutting off people’s access to peer-to-peer networks would be like making second-hand shops illegal because they can be used to sell stolen goods.

So where does this leave organisations such as Risa and Safact, who are just trying to protect the intellectual property of movie makers, game programmers, musicians, and the publishers and distributors of this material?

If the education programmes and negotiations with universities and companies don’t work, Schoeman says that Risa will attempt to identify downloaders of illegal files, asking ISPs to reveal the identities of people using peer-to-peer networks to download MP3s.

Greg Massel, co-chairperson of the Internet Service Provider Association, says that even if an ISP wanted to cooperate with such requests from Risa, it would be illegal for it to do so without a court order.

He adds that it would probably be quite difficult to get such a court order — Risa would have to provide substantial evidence to support the claim that a particular user is downloading material illegally.

Evidence would be difficult to obtain without knowing anything about the user.

All of which leaves James and Geoff, for now, with little to worry about — and lots to listen to.her

Web guide:

Kazaa: www.kazaa.com

WinMX: www.winmx.com

Risa: www.risa.org.za

Safact: www.safact.co.za

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