Digital Property Rights on the Media Grid

The Ethical Point of the Debate: Anti-Piracy on the Media Grid

I’ve been in a bit of a moral dilemma lately. The media grid offers an incredible opportunity for Hollywood to protect its intellectual property – including films, television shows, and just about any other bandwidth-intensive offering it may produce. Advocates of digital freedom point out that in helping the media industry to protect its content, we may artificially restrict freedom of expression. The Viacom-YouTube lawsuit is just one example of this natural tension. In short, property protection of Hollywood’s content could come at an onerous cost both to the consumer and the industry. Draconian anti-piracy policies that the media industry has pushed in the past, like DRM, always seem to fail because of the hassle it gives consumers. Meanwhile, ICANN’s, the WTO’s, and Motion picture industry’s inability to restrict who offers what under the domain name system, creates incredible leverage for the pirates. We need to find a balance from these two polar positions when it comes to the (high-quality) multi-media Internet.

USF Symposium on Net Neutrality

I’ve been seeking answers to this particular question now for many months. I’ve attended a number of conferences, working groups, and spoken with numerous thought leaders on the subject. Last weekend, I attended USF’s symposium on Net Neutrality. I walked away feeling that we may have reached a breakthrough with both sides of the debate. Unfortunately, the symposium veered wildly from 'net neutrality' and really never got around to what the term really means. So, if we can't get broad agreement on the term, then we can hopefully get some agreement on some other things. Piracy was one of them. I met some reasonable 'net neutrality advocates' who actually understood the problem. In other words, it got its fair share of the mindshare, and I walked away with some startling conclusions.

First, I should relate a little diagram that I scratched on a napkin while at the symposium:

Digital property is not easily protected on an open system like the Internet. We see, however, that there are widely varying degrees of respect various business entities have for the property owners. At one extreme, we have parties who respect copyrights with a genuine focus on providing a high quality consumer experience. At the other end, we have blatant disregard for the owners of intellectual property and unscrupulous business people who are simply making money from stolen content. The question, therefore, becomes how did we get in this mess? Where and how should we draw the line and who should lose their privileges on the media grid if they violate InterStream's terms of service agreement (ITOSA)?

Digital property is just like physical property. Without a proper legal framework, rule of law, and respect from the users of that property, any form of protection is doomed to failure. There has been widespread failure in taking down sites like listen4ever.com and allofmp3.com. When they do get taken down, frequently dozens of new ones simply pop up the next day or month. ICANN never could never really assert authority with terms of use agreements for domain names. Instead, the industry has relied on costly and lengthy action from bodies like the WTO to enforce media company digital property rights.

Peer-to-Peer (P2P) network represent a different problem in that they are like ad hoc grids. The media objects like those on BitTorrent, or “torrents”, are completely distributed with no centralized control. Because this model is specifically designed to skirt anti-piracy efforts, and the individuals and companies behind it want to keep the status quo, it is virtually impossible to control or regulate. Sites that help locate "torrents" are even more difficult because they don't actually host the content. The only solution I can see, here, is to give ISPs the right and the ability to put in "truck lanes" that can throttle back the speed of P2P delivery.

Redesigning the Internet

So why don’t we redesign the Internet? For low-bandwidth intensive applications like we have with the current web, this of course, would be impossible to change. There is simply too much momentum behind the current model. Users and .COM businesses alike never would accept any significant move from ICANN or others governing the network today. For bandwidth intensive applications like the “video web”, we have an opportunity to create a new paradigm that can enforce digital property rights and make it much easier for the media industry to monitor, audit, and easily issue take down notices to those perniciously pervasive pirates. Although, the window for implementing such a system is closing rapidly, I have a great deal of hope that we can get it in place quickly and offer consumers a superior user experience to anything they have today or in the near future. The InterStream Terms of Service Agreement (ITOSA) offers the media industry an opportunity to clearly establish their property rights on the network. A terms of service agreement respecting digital property rights was something ICANN and the Commerce Department could not or would not do for domain names. What happened there is for another time and place in this discussion.

Portals on the Media Grid

The media grid uses a different approach to content distribution. ISTP references distributed media objects on the grid while requiring a portal name for anyone wishing to stream their content to a consumer. As such, the portal name can be readily used to determine who does and does not have access to the use of the grid.

For example,

    ISTP://YourPortal/

refers to a portal on the system which could lose distribution privileges on the network if does not conform to InterStream’s anti-piracy policy. If a piece of content is streamed frequently from the grid, it could also be subject to audit. Technologies such as watermarking and fingerprinting offer great promise to thwart piracy if audit systems can be sufficiently automated with takedown notices, including threats of portal shutdown.

I truly believe that this approach is Hollywood’s last and best hope. To thwart piracy, they must ultimately offer consumers a better overall experience. The next generation of television is before us with the InterStream approach. Hyperlinked video, and the promise of having the ability to watch what we want, where and when we want it, is the ultimate answer. We must make sure we don't place so much control over this new “multi-media Web 3.0” that new forms of media, such as user generated content, simply don’t get the high-bandwidth services they require.

Tell me what you think. Drop me an email if you have an opinion on the subject and we can talk about how our oversight board can function to create the best consumer experience while protecting the digital property interests of the “old and new” media industry as well.

Jeff Turner

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