The New Frontier Of The Information Age

MP3-Symbol-Beaver-on-the-BeatsThe technology of the internet and the various file transfers that took place on a second-by-second basis went too fast for the law to catch up, resulting in the fallout of various attempts to get regulations in place.  This old article highlights the early internet and how things like MP3s seemed to slip through the cracks for a long, long time before copyright laws (as well as piracy protection technology) caught up.

Usenet is a one-to-many messaging system providing a worldwide public forum where users can read and post messages.(31) The Usenet system is a worldwide distributed message database consisting of approximately 200,000 servers connected to each other in a “peer-to-peer” arrangement; each news server has one or more “peers” with which it exchanges information. A message posted on one Usenet server is therefore automatically and rapidly propagated to every other news server in the worldwide system. As of February 1998, there were more than 46,000 newsgroups, topically arranged to cover almost any interest imaginable, and Usenet’s daily volume, which has been doubling every year, exceeded half a million messages, comprising more than 900 million bytes, the equivalent of 360,000 full pages of text.(32)

Since any computer file may be converted into its text equivalent, many Usenet “messages” are actually computer programs, images, sound recordings, and other types of computer files.

Virtually all Usenet servers restrict access. Although there are some “public” news servers that allow access to any user, they represent less than a tenth of 1 percent of the total servers. As of February 7, 1998, there were only 132 news servers open to the public. Of the few servers that are public, many do not allow users to post messages, and most carry far fewer groups than private servers.(33)

Some private servers belong to universities or businesses and therefore restrict access to their students or employees. Most private servers, however, are commercial and thus restrict access to paid subscribers only. A few news servers require the user to purchase a stand-alone subscription, but the vast majority of the servers offer access as a value-added service provided as part of an ISP’s basic service package.

Usenet servers restrict access either by requiring the visitor to log on with a user name and password combination, which is the method used by most news servers that provide service as stand-alone subscriptions, or by allowing access only to visitors connecting from certain known IP addresses. This latter is the method used by news servers that belong to businesses or universities or are offered as part of an access provider’s value-added services. It allows access by anyone connecting from an IP address that it owns.

As with IRC, Usenet users may choose to be identified by a pseudonym. Once connected to a news server, users are able to browse the newsgroups, select messages to retrieve, and post their own messages.

Usenet is the source of widespread intellectual property theft; it is truly the problem child of the Internet. Pirated software is openly exchanged in many newsgroups. These groups, of which the nine most popular are estimated to alone account for 30 to 40 percent of Usenet’s daily traffic, have been called online software piracy’s “pulsing heart.”(34) The regular participants in these groups are remarkably sophisticated and organized, with established rules and procedures for posting and requesting pirated software. They have developed sophisticated protocols and procedures for trading pirated softeware.(35)

A large portion of the software posted is provided by organized software piracy groups. “Suppliers” provide the programs, “crackers” defeat any copy protection devices, “rippers” remove superfluous material from the programs to reduce transmission time, “packagers” divide the programs into easier to transmit portions, and “couriers” exchange these programs with couriers from other piracy groups. Finally, one or more of the couriers will post the program to Usenet, complete with installation instructions.

The various groups compete among themselves for bragging rights for providing software having the most trouble free installations or for being the first to distribute a new program through files included with the pirated software. These files proudly list the aliases of the prominent members of the organization, the groups most recent successes, and invitations for new users to join.

These pirate organizations typically operate one or more BBSs. Distribution may be done through either through the Internet using FTP transfers or by conventional direct computer-to-computer transfer using proprietary software. They often have affiliates located throughout the world.(36)

They are so well organized and efficient that they frequently make new software available in the newsgroups before it can be shipped by the manufacturer to retail stores. These so-called “zero-day warez” are the most highly prized commodity among Internet piracy groups.(37)

There also are many groups specializing in the exchange of adult images, the vast majority of which are unauthorized copies of protected works. Many images are obviously magazine pages that have been scanned and then posted. Other newsgroups specialize in the exchange of “MP3s,” commercial music recordings that have been specially processed to reduce transmission time. Other groups specialize in providing utility programs (“cracks”) and serial numbers used to defeat software copyright protection schemes.(38)

Usenet has several features that make it an ideal medium for the mass exchange of pirated works. First, Usenet messages may be posted with a reasonable degree of anonymity. Although users may assume any name, each Usenet message contains certain information that can be used to help track down an uploading user’s identity. Sophisticated software pirates use a “patch” that strips away much of this information. A few news server sysops, who understandably are popular with software pirates, refuse to attach identifying information to messages originating from their servers.(39) Second, each message is propagated to thousands of news servers around the world within minutes, thereby making its contents available to millions of users. Finally, in contrast with FTP sites or web pages, newsgroups provide a centralized shared source for pirated works. Trading is done on a quid pro quo system. If a specific work is desired, the user simply follows the procedure for posting a request and other users will respond by posting the desired material. That user is then implicitly obligated to reciprocate.

Unlike the other primary Internet services, Usenet does have a sort of central authority, generically called “the administrators,” a voluntary association of individual Usenet server sysops. Although Usenet administrators are empowered to a certain extent to correct abuses, “abuse” in this context means abuse of the Usenet system itself, not to the legality or appropriateness of the content of messages.(40)

Content on Usenet servers is extremely difficult to monitor. Although Usenet messages are identified by descriptive subject headers, the contents of any given message can be accurately determined only by retrieving (and in the case of binary files, decoding) the actual message. The massive number of messages flowing through Usenet servers each day, however, makes any such monitoring system practically impossible.

Brady, Michael J., et al. “The World Wide Web and the new world of litigation: a basic introduction.” Defense Counsel Journal Oct. 1999: 497