During the CATO Institute panel on INDUCE last week Markham Erickson of NetCoalition made an interesting point. While discussing the various flaws in the INDUCE drafts, he noted that several versions attempted to outlaw P2P appliations based on language prohibitng specific technological architectures. For example, some of the drafts from the Copyright Office specifically targeted technologies that were "capable of widespread distribution of copyrighted materials."
Markham noted that when he talked to engineers in tech companies about this particular aspect of INDUCE, their main concern was that the direction that P2P architecture is headed (decentralized services vs. central server intermediaries) is the same direction that all network technologies are headed. Today's cutting edge markets -- Wifi, WiMax, Camera Phones, MP3 players, etc. -- are all trending toward flexible decentralized distribution mechanisms, just as P2P does. Therefore, any approach to INDUCE that targets a specific or general architecture threatens not only legitimate innovation in principle but also legitimate innovation in practice, at least according to the engineers on the ground.
This got me to thinking. Why were the RIAA and MPAA so insistent during the negotiations on a broad technological definition? Why not just write a bill that narrowly targets P2P companies by name and be done with it? (For example, one could simply make it illegal to write a software program that utilizes the GiFT, FastTrack, Gnutella, Bittorrent, or OpenFt protocols and that would effectively ban most current P2P apps).
The reason, of course, is that INDUCE is not really just about P2P apps. It's about the future of all distribution technologies and in particular, about what I like to call "Me2Me" apps. As network and distribution technologies evolve, they offer consumers and computer users more and more control over their own media. P2P technology broke into the mainstream as a mechanism for distributing files amongst different people, but the same architecture is becoming popular among technologies designed to distribute one person's content amongst his or her various platforms.
For example, consider iTunes and the iPod. iTunes allows one to stream music to any computer on your local area network. It also allows you to transfer files to any number of iPods. It also allows you to rip, mix, and burn CDs. In essence, it allows massive distribution of content, albeit primarily to one's self, family, and friends.
Or consider the Media Package on Tivo via Wifi. I use my Tivo Media package to listen to music streamed from my computer over my home wireless network. I also use it to view photos. Both of these mechanisms are "Me2Me" distribution technologies which allow me to shuffle my content from one platform to another. Technologies like the Airport Express and SlingBox further extend this capability by allowing you to shift content from your computer to stereo or from your Tivo to your laptop or PDA. And finally, don't forget cell phones. More and more, they are becoming dissemination technologies for audio, video, photos, and music.
The next generation will go even further. Imagine a wireless iPod that can synch with any iTunes application within 75 feet. Or a MP3 player for your car that automatically syncs with your home computer when you pull into the driveway. Or a media player on your laptop that automatically syncs with your TiVo to download the latest episode of your favorite Prime Time addiction.
This is, of course, the RIAA and MPAA's worst nightmare. Both industries have based their business models on controlling each and every permutation of playback for their content. The RIAA wants to make you pay when you buy the CD, when you download the iTune, when you listen to an Internet webcast, etc. The MPAA wants to charge you at the theater, for every copy of a DVD you buy, and (via advertising) for every show you watch on TV. Yet the more and more we as users and consumers are allowed to control and choose our own form of playback, the less Hollywood can justify charging us for each one. The more utility we get out of Me2Me apps, the less we're willing to pay someone for an extra copy or delivery mechanism. In the end, Me2Me technology may pose a larger threat to Big Cotent's bottom line than P2P ever did.
So how does this play into the politics of INDUCE? Well, P2P has been an easy political target for the RIAA and MPAA. Its an easy case of massive unauthorized distribution. In the Grokster case, they were able to show that over 90% of P2P is used for infringement of copyright. Its transfers take place outside the privacy of one's home and often include socially-stigmatized content like pornography, spam, spyware, and viruses.
Me2Me technology, however, would be much much harder to outlaw. Many Me2Me uses would arguably be fair or non-infringing uses. For instance, they tend to be private uses involving only family or friends. Many would involve use of media legitimately purchased by both the sender and recipient of the content (i.e. oneself). Thus, under current copyright law, it would very difficult to outlaw any of them. It would also be difficult to chastize them politically in front of Congress.
This is why the battle over DRM, the Broadcast flag, and now INDUCE has become so important for them. If the RIAA/MPAA wait too long, more and more platform distribution technologies with primarily legal uses will come to market and undermine their case for outlawing specific architectures. As these technologies take hold, public and political sentiment will continue to grow against harsher restrictions and enforcement and more toward allowing and embracing such technologies. Thus, the window of opportunity for the content industry to pass a restrictive law like INDUCE is very short. They must act now (dare I say pre-emptively strike?) while they can to frame the targets as a bunch of "bad" actors (i.e. the P2P companies) before too many "good" actors (i.e. Me2Me products and services) infiltrate the market and obfuscate the ability to outlaw one architecture without threatening the others.