14 February 2008

Free Culture, The Law and The Corporations - Part I

I have recently downloaded the book "Free Culture" by Lawrence Lessig (you can download it for free here) and am part way through reading it. As those of you reading previous blog entries will know I am a big fan of Free Software, but more recently my interest has spread to other areas of society where the "Free versus non-free" argument is equally applicable. I suppose one of the reasons for this is that whilst those within my circle who are software developers stand a chance of understanding the issues easily, for those who are not it is an extremely academic, niche area. However the same issues crop up time and time again in areas such as books, journalism, film, music, art, TV and so forth. These are areas which a far wider section of society are able to relate to, and even have a vested interest in how the cultural environment develops in the face of changing technology.

As most of you will know there is a 'system' on the internet known as bittorrent (on account of my internet service provider (ISP)'s backward policy, I often refer to it as 'bittrickle', but that's an aside at this point). This is essentially a protocol to enable download of files, in the same way that the HyperText Transfer Protocol, or HTTP is a protocol. Whereas HTTP is designed for web pages and works extremely well with small files (HTML documents primarily, but it can be used with any type of file), bittorrent is much better suited for larger files as it inherently supports suspending and resuming of downloading. It also (and this is the whole point of it) enables people to make a file available to the masses without having to spend a vast amount of money providing download bandwidth, as different users upload portions of the file to each other - hence the term peer-to-peer, or P2P. This is important, as it enables smaller players without huge financial resources to produce content and make it widely available.

Lets just state at this point that despite my ISP's backward policy, I have used this to download software, music and videos and it's a wonderful system. Most of the GNU/Linux distributions I have tried are available as installation CD images, for which bittorrent is an ideal download method. There is a great documentary film called Steal This Film II (there is also a version I) about the issues I am talking about here which is only available via bittorrent - it's a large DVD image so again bittorrent is ideally suited to this. For music, sites such as Jamendo allow musicians to make their music available for free download via bittorrent. I have become familiar with a number of great musicians through this site, most of whom I would otherwise probably not have heard of. I also use the Miro video player to download and play content from video channels. If your idea of online video is limited to youtube, I strongly recommend you try this - you subscribe to channels, it uses bittorrent as one of it's download methods (depending on the channel). Some of the channels are High Definition so the quality can be excellent. Due to the potentially large files it downloads, it does this all in the background whilst letting you get on and watch those you have already downloaded.

So what's the point of all this? Let's just say that there are forces which are trying very hard to make it illegal, or impractical, to use bittorrent. I have already mentioned my ISP which restricts the download rate to a trickle. The main forces behind this though are those who traditionally sell CDs, DVDs and the like. In short, they see the availability of free content as a threat to their business model (which indeed it is). However they won't tell you this is the reason they want to shut it down, because that would be seen as anticompetitive - they will tell you it's all about copyright infringement (also known colloquially as "piracy"). I will reserve my comments on this for my next posting, where I will discuss The Pirate Bay and it's legal struggles against the aforementioned forces, represented largely by the IFPI, or International Federation of the Phonographic Industry.

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