Is file-sharing dead?

The recent RIAA lawsuits have severely blunted the practice of file-sharing. The music industry has gone after the on-line users who share copyright-protected songs. The movie industry may someday follow suit. Although the number of people prosecuted has been small, the negative publicity has caused many people to shy away from Kazaa, Grokster, and other services.

I don’t know of any good estimates of how much file-sharing has gone down in recent times. All parties to the disputes have incentives to fudge the numbers. But based on conversations and anecdotal observations, combined with written sources, I find it plausible that file-sharing has declined by at least a third.

The days of file-sharing, however, are far from over. First, a judge just ruled that the RIAA cannot petition Verizon for the names of potential file-sharers. reported as follows:

…in a strongly worded ruling, the appeals court sided with Verizon, saying a 1998 copyright law does not give copyright holders the ability to subpoena customer names from Internet providers without filing a formal lawsuit.

This ruling should come as no surprise. After all, why should the RIAA have a special right to petition Verizon for the names of potential copyright infringers? I hold some copyrights too. I and many others could petition Verizon for the information concerning various account holders. Without any legal standard of proof privacy is meaningless. More significantly, Verizon would end up swamped under the requests. Imagine various hackers and cyberpunks flooding Verizon with identity requests just to make the reporting system unworkable.

Even if this ruling is reversed, or John Doe suits prove effective in generating the names, file-sharing is likely to return in force. Anonymous networks are becoming more popular rapidly. Read the analysis of Clay Shirky. Right now users are not sure whether these networks are useful or trustworthy. But that information will spread rapidly. Within a year, we will know whether the Palestinian file-sharing network is indeed reliable. If that source of files turns out to be crooked, something else will arise to take its place.

Consider the whole problem in terms of consumer option value. File-sharers have not given up on the idea. They are waiting to see when and how they can start sharing files again. When the proper time comes, they will return in full force.

Addendum: Here is a Washington Post article on the decision. Hit and Run links to the full decision.


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