Darknet Blues

The Music Industry Makes Peace With Big Software—at Dial-Up Speed

If a broadband connection included access to a vast catalog of music, the number of subscribers would shoot up, driving down the cost of broadband while increasing the size of the pot. Many newspapers and magazines grant extensive free access to their content online while managing to impose certain limits, and TV and radio come both free and pay. Why can't similar plans be devised for content encoded as sound? Nielsen-like methods for tracking music downloads already in development could determine how revenues are divided. And none of this means that the record companies will stop selling CDs, or that the public will want them to.

Even the music industry's new allies in Big Software are suggesting it has to loosen up. In November, four senior engineers released a paper called "The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution" (available at crypto.stanford.edu/DRM2002/darknet5.doc). It's less a technical report than a cogently articulated logical exercise. The authors argue that the "darknet"—their term for all practices related to the underground sharing of digital content—is ultimately unstoppable. Therefore, embedding digital objects with tight security controls decreases their value and drives people back to the darknet, making copy protection not just "inherently ineffective," but also a "disincentive to legal commerce." Their conclusion: "A vendor will probably make more money selling unprotected objects than protected objects."

illustration: Nathan Fox

Like Alan Kilkenny two decades ago, the authors aren't wild-eyed cyber-visionaries. They all work for Microsoft. Alarming realism, indeed.

« Previous Page