Web Informant #204, 26 June 2000:
Stealing digital goods


One of the interesting conflicts being played out these days is how to protect your assets in your digital storefront. The issue is especially acute for content publishers of such things as images, music, software, and other things that can be downloaded in a few moments with a high-speed net connection.

The music industry is perhaps most infamous for their series of responses. First they claimed ignorance. Then they hired IBM to create some fantastically complex and all but unusable methods to protect their copyrights and prevent copycats. The current method seems to be moving towards lawyers to sue various parties (such as Napster, MP3.com, and others) and then settle for huge payments in lieu of royalties (this is the route that MP3.com has taken with two music publishers, and more agreements like this are sure to follow).

But other industries aren't as organized, or as Paleolithic, as the music business. And while we are all tired of hearing about the average college student downloading thousands of songs, there are other less noteworthy accomplishments along the stealing front.

An interesting article ran last month dealing with how easy it is to pilfer digital content from several leading edge web sites. The Industry Standard asked one of their freelancers, Karen Solomon, to test the mettle of various protection schemes used by such industry bigwigs as the Aberdeen Group, the MIT Press, and several music sites. Her goal was to demonstrate how easy it is to surf and steal the goods, even in the face of some technological barriers such as Content Guard and Reciprocal. Her results? Digital-rights software ranged from mildly annoying to completely ineffective, and she was able to grab content pretty much at will. Even in situations where the web sites had solid protection, she was able to search around the Internet and find what she was looking for on someone else's site.

Sure, the Internet is the Wild West, and no matter what steps you take to protect yourself, if someone wants to set up a server with copyrighted information, they can and they will. There is no better example than the porn industry: uploads on the net appear almost nanoseconds after an issue of appear in a plain-brown wrapper in one's mailbox. All it takes is one or more enterprising readers with high-quality scanners and cable modems.

So what's a content owner to do? If you don't want to pay lawyers to sue, you don't have a heck of a lot of choices. You can try to track down the offenders, but good luck with that. Perhaps stealing your content is the new millennium form of flattery: if your stuff is good enough to steal, someone must be thinking highly of what you are creating. Yeah, sure.

And if you think I am speaking about this in the abstract, I do have some personal experience in this department. I am all-too-familiar with having my own digital property taken from me without my permission. Indeed, this happened to me twice.

The first time was a few years ago, when a publishing firm decided to launch a print magazine called "Web Informant." At the time, I had been writing these online-only series of essays for several years with that name. I was distressed that the publisher began to use the name without nary a care, nor even trying to obtain permission from me. (He did try to trademark the name, but I fortunately had gotten the mark.) We exchanged a series of angry letters and phone calls, to no avail. Luckily, he ceased publication after a few issues, and the name continues on here in your email box.

The second time was when a student tried to plagiarize some of my essays as his own. Luckily, his teacher is a friend and subscriber. She recognized my writing immediately, and was able to exert some pedagogical influence.

Both experiences left me feeling rather dirty over the whole thing. Digital theft will continue, and probably expand in some new and innovative ways. In the meantime, content publishers have to make some difficult decisions about how to stop it, if they can.

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David Strom
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