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Donna Wentworth
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Ernest Miller
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About this weblog
Here we'll explore the nexus of legal rulings, Capitol Hill policy-making, technical standards development, and technological innovation that creates -- and will recreate -- the networked world as we know it. Among the topics we'll touch on: intellectual property conflicts, technical architecture and innovation, the evolution of copyright, private vs. public interests in Net policy-making, lobbying and the law, and more.

Disclaimer: the opinions expressed in this weblog are those of the authors and not of their respective institutions.

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In the Pipeline: Don't miss Derek Lowe's excellent commentary on drug discovery and the pharma industry in general at In the Pipeline

Copyfight

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June 4, 2004

WiFi WANs and LANs

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Posted by Ernest Miller

A recent Register article on a new program that permits automatic discovery and creation of a filesharing LAN via WiFi has been getting a lot of attention recently (Promiscuous BluePod file swapping - coming to a PDA near you). I didn't really look closely at the article because, to be honest, I kind of assumed such a tool already existed. This is important software, but I think the spin is missing much of the point.

It is clear to me that the basic software concept is a no brainer and even a necessity in our increasingly unwired world. After all, there are many obvious legitimate uses for such a service. Anytime people gather physically such software would be very useful in transfering all sorts of files and information. Papers and notes can be zapped around during meetings, conferences and class. For more examples of non-music related uses, see Social Twister: Pocket Rendezvous: Spawning Connectivity.

However, the music sharing aspect is less impressive to me. I have to disagree with Derek Slater on how interesting it is (WiFi File-Swapping). I don't really see much more than novelty value in being able to join a filesharing network with complete strangers in a physical space. Are you really going to want to share that much with strangers you pass on the street or a local coffeeshop? It is one thing to be able to transfer with someone you've made some connection with, but to promiscuously advertise your files and interests to everyone around? Sure, such software would make fileswapping parties a bit easier, but they're not that hard to set up in the first place. Read on...

I must also disagree that this will inhibit the RIAA's lawsuit strategy. I doubt it will have any significant impact at all. The problem with wireless hotspots for the RIAA is that someone can fileshare on a WAN from the local park and by the time the RIAA notices, there is not much they can do to identify who was involved. The RIAA needs to fear wireless hotspots and WAN access, not wireless and LAN access.

LAN filesharing is much less threatening to the RIAA for several reasons. For example, the amount of filesharing you can do is limited by physical presence. Even at the largest hotspots, there is an extremely limited number of people one can share with, as compared to WAN - thus, finding files you are interested in is much more difficult. Why even bother? Use the wireless access to join a filesharing WAN. You must also be physically present to share on a wireless LAN; it isn't something you can let run in the background when you go to bed. Of course, the most popular hotspots could easily be spied upon by RIAA agents and the sharer's physical presence will make identification and proof of copyright infringement much easier. So, I don't think wireless LAN is anything the RIAA should lose sleep over.

Finally, I have to take issue with some misinformation in the original article:

So how could one developer succeed where the industry's giants have so far failed? The answer appears to be more political than technical. Although manufacturers have marketed wireless-enabled hard drives, these don't play or stream music. And WiFi enabled music players are on the market, but the wireless link is used for synchronizing the music collection with a host PC, rather than doing what music was created for, and sharing. And for this, you've got the 1998 Congress to thank. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act prevents the marketing of a device whose primary purpose is copyright circumvention.

It is probably for political/business reasons that many of the major wireless developers haven't created such software already. In some cases it might even be fear of the RIAA bringing a contributory/vicarious copyright infringement lawsuit that prevents development (though I think it would be fairly easy to make such software essentially liability-proof for this purpose). However, it isn't because of the DMCA. There is nothing in the DMCA that makes it illegal to market a device whose primary purpose is copyright circumvention (whatever that is). The author of the article is mistaking the anti-circumvention provisions of the DMCA that prohibit distributing anti-circumvention devices. So, unless the networking software circumvents DRM as part of the filesharing, there should be no DMCA worries.

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: IP Use


COMMENTS

1. Derek Slater on June 4, 2004 6:06 PM writes...

"The RIAA needs to fear wireless hotspots and WAN access, not wireless and LAN access."

Well, I was pointing out BOTH in my post ("and people start using open wireless hotspots to do their downloading"). KaZaA Wireless (so far as I can tell) is an interface to a desktop KaZaA client that any capable mobile device can use. It's not quite as cool as I initially thought in that it's not actually on the mobile device, I think. But if the person running this was running a hotspot, you can get basically the same effect.
Anyway: I think you're right that BluePod is the less interesting, though, added with this one, you get another interesting layer of difficulty for the RIAA.

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2. Holmes Wilson on June 5, 2004 10:41 PM writes...

The example you give of sharing mp3s with strangers in a Starbucks is definitely uninteresting. But I disagree that WiFi is limited to this kind of limited gimmick.

The real exciting potential about WiFi is mesh networking. 802.11b cards can maintain simultaneous connections with multiple neighbors. If you have the right software, that means as soon as you have a dense enough population of users you can make a network that's plenty large enough to be useful for sharing media. And it's not even on the internet. Students, for example, whose colleges adopt draconian filesharing policies will simply be able to set up their own networks.

Wifi meshnets are also going to be one of the leading factors in making internet access really cheap. The privilege of internet access still costs a good $350/yr, which is a barrier to entry for many.

The other huge deal with Wifi is speed. The very limited upstream speeds of cable and DSL networks are a big problem for filesharing networks, particularly networks like Freenet or MUTE that try to create anonymity by routing files across (and via the upstream connections of) several peers. Even 802.11b is two orders of magnitude faster on the uptream than a cable modem. That means movies arive in minutes.

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