Power 2 The People

Published Date
01 - Mar - 2007
| Last Updated
01 - Mar - 2007
 
Power 2 The People

Peer to peer (P2P) has been around for a long time now. Big software, music and movie corporations are against the piracy it brings, users love it and pirates thrive on the notoriety it brings them. In our networked society, P2P accounts for the majority of the chit-chat (data transfer) globally. Studies have revealed that P2P networks, especially BitTorrent, accounts for over half the bandwidth used globally; so much so that standard Web surfing (HTTP) is nowhere in the same league.

So what's behind all the exabytes of data that's changed hard drives across the globe? Why is P2P so popular, and how will it change the future of the Net?

A Little History
Traditionally, the Internet is based on servers and clients. Thinkdigit.com resides on a server, which "serves" up files and content to anyone who wants it (the clients). The interface used by the clients to get this information is a Web browser, such as Internet Explorer, FireFox, Opera, etc. The data transfer protocol is called Hyper Text Transfer Protocol (HTTP), and remains the most popular usage of the Internet. Whether it's you hitting Google to find something, or checking your e-mail, or browsing through a company Web site, you're using the Internet in the traditional way it was made for.

Now, somewhere along the line, people discovered that if so many people were online, all at once, perhaps there should be a way to talk to one another - a programmer somewhere said in a not-so-heavenly voice, "Let there be chat", and lo, chat was born. IRC (Internet Relay Chat) was the most popular of these at one point in time, but soon gave way to the Yahoo!s and MSNs. However, what IRC brought along with it was the ability to send a file directly to another user on the same server. Now some may argue that the Usenet BBS (bulletin board service) was the first P2P network, but IRC's @find is what most of us were using to find shared files back in the day.

Then came Napster! The rest, as they say, is popular history. For those of you who haven't heard of Napster's notorious days, or the Metallica vs Napster battle, cease, desist, do a quick Google, read that, then come back!

The history of P2P and the justice system is made infamous mostly by this loss of a lawsuit by Napster's lawyers. Next, services such as AudioGalaxy, KaZaA, WinMX, eDonkey and the likes were hit. Today, BitTorrent is one of the last remaining bushes in P2P file sharing garden, and it's flourishing! The uploading and downloading on Torrent networks account for a majority of ~all~ Internet traffic across the world!

Legality
So it's all illegal? Why not just ban it all? Ahh! But if life were always that simple, the majority of you would have paid for your software, music and movies, and your computer would cost a good deal more…

P2P isn't illegal, per se, because if you want to share your vacation video with the world, no one has the right to stop you! If you have a band, make music, and want the world to listen to it, you have every right to do so. The same applies for software you make, any movies you produce, and basically anything that is licensed under Creative Commons or is otherwise Open Source. There're terabytes of movies, music, applications, operating systems and other digital content that can legally be shared on P2P networks. Granted, legal P2P accounts for almost nothing of the global P2P bandwidth, but it is this very small segment that P2P software caters to.

No one can blame P2P software for piracy; that shame falls solely upon us users of the software.

Advantages
P2P networks are actually a great boon, especially to Open Source content creators. Consider this: you are a software developer, you magnanimously decide to create a useful application without wanting to sell it commercially (for example, a Linux distro). You spend months (if not years) developing it, at your own costs, and now find that in order to share it with the world, you will have to incur further costs of buying Web hosting bandwidth. God help your wallet if your software is as popular as say, the Ubuntu Linux distro. With millions of people downloading the 700 MB odd CD image, you're certainly going to get a big bandwidth bill every month!

However, thanks to P2P, you have an option. First you find some friends who have fat pipes at home or work, get them to download the software from you, then make a Torrent, upload it to a popular legal torrent site (or just host it on your own site), and instead of millions of people downloading 700 MB each, you get millions of people downloading a small 7 KB .torrent file each and then downloading the 700 MB from your friends who are also hosting the file. Plus, the more people that finish downloading the file, the more "seeders" you have and the less the strain is on the original hoster's bandwidth! Thusly, communities are born! Apart from saving tons of hard cash in bandwidth costs, P2P can help you develop a community, quite like a forum does… and then there are the ideas that don't involve any file sharing at all!

P2P With A Difference
Have you heard of Skype? Again, if you haven't, Google it, read the first link, come back...

So by now you should know how big a revolution Skype started in terms of Voice over IP (VoIP). The difference between Skype and all the other VoIP solutions before it was the fact that Skype was designed to be a P2P software, and in fact, comes from the same people who gave us KaZaA! This means that Skype can sustain millions of users, with hardly any infrastructure costs, in fact, the more users it has, the cheaper the cost of bandwidth per person on the network - in true P2P style! Here, instead of files, users are helping each other "talk" to other Skype users across the globe by exchanging data packets that carry voice.

Red Swoosh (www.redswoosh.net) offers a P2P style sharing of large multimedia content or files. All you have to do is install the client software, and then when you click on a "Swooshed" link you get to download the content from other people who have also downloaded the same file. If you want to put up a large video on your site, but do not want to pay for huge bandwidth costs, this might be the way to go…

There are many more such ideas, all involving P2P, and all quite legal and helpful.

We Want To Be Entertained
Games, movies and music are the prime sources of entertainment for most of us, and thanks to P2P, albeit quite illegally, we can find whatever we like for "free" online. With broadband becoming a reality in India, for those who are willing to pay for it, the latest in entertainment is just a few clicks and a few hours of downloading away. Piracy was never easier!

Though the most popular way of legal distribution via P2P is currently BitTorrent, unfortunately, it is also the most popular for illegal pirated content as well!

Be it music, movies, the latest games and even software, it's all easily available. For us Indians, this is the icing on the cake! Most of us refuse to pay for what we can, essentially, get for "free". Ignorance of the laws plays a part here, but honestly, most of us just don't give a hoot for "foreign" laws. As far as software is concerned, we at ~Digit~ have got thousands of mails regarding piracy, with the general sentiment divided: one camp feels piracy is the fault of the software manufacturers, who price their software too high, in accordance with US pricing, instead of pricing it lower to account for the lower average salaries here in India, while others, mostly Open Source supporters, say that breaking the piracy laws when good free software is available is just inexcusable! Rather than rekindle this debate, let's leave software and games out of this and focus on movies and music…

The same arguments just do not hold true for entertainment! We cannot blame high price tags for the piracy of movies or music, yet most of us seem to have loads of MP3s and have seen all the latest movies, sometimes even before they're released in theatres here! The average American pays anywhere from three to five times as much as we do to watch movies in a theatre, and also pays more for music CDs. So what's our excuse?

It's not just Hollywood and the US and European music that's being hit here - you can find everything from Bollywood movies to ghazals, classical and bhangra on P2P networks. Every AVI or MP3 on our computers translates to a loss in revenue for the artists and the producers and recording labels. Most industry personnel now think the word piracy is just too light, and prefer to call this theft!

In the perfect world (from the perspective of the entertainment industry), every person who watched a movie or listened to an MP3 would have paid for it. This means the costs associated with buying or renting a movie DVD or paying theatre charges, and buying an album CD, or purchasing the single track online. That's literally billions upon billions of Rupees worth of revenue being lost due to piracy, and the entertainment industry is taking things seriously. We're still living sheltered lives here in India, thanks to laws that put piracy in what can only be described as a grey area, but things will change soon, that you can count on.

Opposing Forces
Not every artiste thinks of P2P as a bad thing; not every recording company shuns P2P like the plague! There have always been two sides to every coin, and though not lit in large neon signs, backed by billions of dollars, there are still approving whispers for P2P from around the globe.

The music industry, especially the RIAA, has been criticized immensely by a few artists and smaller recording labels. From small whispers of dissent to outright calls for boycotts, there's a very colourful opposing viewpoint. Some of it goes thusly:

You're all sheep! All being herded into nice little groups, and sheared… instead of wool, you're being shaved of your hard earned money. Thanks to big budget music videos, billions of dollars of marketing campaigns and paid-for airing of a particular type of music, you're being forced to buy/listen to music that is manufactured. This music is tailor-made to attract you; you're brainwashed into listening to it and, for the lack of anything better, liking it as well. How? All the music you hear comes from a few major recording labels, so few that you can count them on your fingers. The latest heartthrob is just a cute face that some recording label suit liked, made popular by a song that was written, composed and, in some cases, even performed by unknown, talented artistes. The genre, the rhythm, is all based on the statistical feedback of market surveys, and everything is basically just manufactured!

Extreme? Sure, but hardly unbelievable…

Here are a few excerpts from www.downhillbattle.org, a non-profit organization that aims to let us sheep decide how to spend our wool, and why they think the world needs to be rid of the monopoly that major labels have on music!

"The major labels' business model requires them to have a steady stream of consistent products. The very nature of their operation produces homogenized music designed for specific radio formats and scientifically honed to hit-making models. Artists are signed and promoted based on the opinions of individual A&R executives, not the popularity of the music. When the major labels crumble, the diversity of mainstream music will blossom. It will be a revolution in pop culture. People will decide what's popular, not marketing.

"For decades, the major labels have controlled what's on the radio by paying radio stations to play their songs. Pay-for-play radio (aka "payola") means that independent labels can't get their music on mainstream radio and mediocre major label music gets on the radio just because somebody's paying.

"For artists on major labels, label bureaucrats hijack the sound and control the final product. The label picks the producer of the album and they can always refuse to release it; sometimes labels even trash entire albums. And at the end of the day the label--not the musician--owns the copyright to each song.

"The major label system is the biggest barrier to musicians making money off CDs. Major label artists only start getting their tiny share of royalties (5-10%) once they've sold over 500,000 units. Independent musicians can get a bigger cut, but thanks to major label payola they can't get on the radio and won't reach a large audience."

Now you can choose to think of all this as sour grapes, or a very nice eye-opener, and the choice is purely yours. However, you're probably wondering what all this big brotherly talk is doing in an article about P2P… well… you should visit http://www.eff.org/share/collective_lic_wp.php for an interesting idea on how P2P can help revolutionise the way we get our music.

In short, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) says that instead of suing a few Americans for downloading music, perhaps we should just charge every individual with a broadband connection a small monthly fee (say, Rs 250), and allow them to download all the music they want from P2P, without any legal issues. Sound strange? Here's how they propose this "Collective License" idea would work…

If millions of people across the globe (P2P users) paid a small fee for the freedom to download absolutely any music available on P2P networks, legally, then that translates into billions of dollars worth of ~profit~ for the recording industry! In fact, if the amount is really as little as $5 (Rs 225) per month, ISPs themselves will be only too happy to pay the amount for their users, considering that they'd be able to market it as a broadband connection with free, unlimited music downloading! With people paying anywhere from Rs 1,000 to Rs 3,000 for always-on 256 Kbps connections around India, who would mind a few hundred Rupees more for the peace of mind that such a scheme would offer?

How would the artists and recording companies make money? All you need to do is visit www.bigchampagne.com, for the answer! Big Champagne is a media research company that monitors retail outlets, online music stores, streaming video and music, and yes, even P2P sharing. For P2P, they monitor what is being downloaded, legally or illegally, to find what music is the most popular across the world.

Such data could be used to distribute the money that could be collected if we used EFF's strategy of legalizing P2P. Artists and labels whose songs were most downloaded would get a bigger piece of the Collective License pie. This would also ensure that good music, and not marketing campaigns, music videos and promotion gimmicks, would be rewarded. Indie artists rejoice!

What About CDs?
What about them? Those who still want to buy them, will do so. The idea is not to stop producing CDs or albums or even DVDs. The idea is to legalise the filesharing that the recording labels are crying foul from. This is why a Collective License would reap pure profits. Audiophiles, for whom 192 Kbps MP3s are akin to blasphemy, will still be able to go out and buy DVD quality sound for themselves. You will still get entire albums in stores, both online and offline, and basically everything about the industry will remain unchanged. The only difference is that the recording industry starts making profits off the P2P phenomenon they're currently cribbing about, and all of us can download and listen in peace!

Will It Work?
Of course this can also apply to movies, games, software and basically anything, and all it needs is the support of the companies that are currently fighting P2P. Easier said than done; which is evident from the fact that although the idea of a Collective License has existed for quite a few years now, no headway seems to have been made.

Besides, this idea isn't new, and for those who doubt that such an idea might even work, consider the radio station business. What was once considered a business of piracy, just as P2P is now, the radio industry is today a working example of a similar Collective License. Instead of paying for the license of every song, radio stations pay a high license fee to associations such as ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers) or BMI (Broadcast Music Incorporated), for the freedom to air anything licensed by these associations – which is almost every song ever created. These agencies then pay the artists royalties based on what's popular, for the rights to allow radio stations to broadcast their music. In the end everyone's happy, everyone makes money and we get to listen to the latest music on air. Since this also involves online radio, it's only a matter of juxtaposition to imagine this working for P2P.

Inevitability?
So is this the way that P2P will go? Unless someone comes up with a better solution, it certainly seems a likely possibility. Let's face it; with huge grey areas caused by differing laws across the world, P2P is here to stay. Is the uploader the criminal? Is the downloader breaking the law? Should we sue the software creator? Try and shut down every Torrent hosting site? Get better DRM solutions? Sue a billion people across the world? With so many questions, and so few sane answers, a solution is desperately needed, and none of them make more sense right now than a Collective License. How long will the RIAA continue to sue individuals before it realizes that it is losing potentially billions of dollars of profits by not adopting such a solution? Will egos ever deflate, allowing for saner solutions? What else can we do but wait and watch? For now, you just have to live with your conscience when downloading the latest Metallica concert, and hope that the RIAA doesn't come a-knocking, dragging you away to court while you yell, "Power to the people, long live P2P!" 

robert_smith@thinkdigit.com


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