RealTime IT News

Flush From Victory, RIAA Goes Headhunting

Having scored its first trophy to mount on the walls in the legal offices, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is after a new target: The venerable Usenet system.

More specifically, the RIAA on Tuesday filed suit against one company in particular, Usenet.com, a provider of access to the aging-but-still-active Usenet news hierarchy.

Usenet.com did not return requests for comment by press time.

Unlike other old-school Internet technologies like Gopher and Telnet, Usenet hasn't shriveled up and died with the advent of the Web. The system came about as the creation of two Duke University students in 1979, who used the Unix-to-Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) to store and forward messages in newsgroups.

As the Internet grew, Usenet grew, but because it uses store-and-forward, there is no hub controlling traffic.

Once a message is posted to Usenet, every system with Usenet newsgroups adopts a take-one-and-pass-it-down approach. It's practically impossible to remove a posting from Usenet, especially now that Google owns Deja, a database of all Usenet posts dating back to the early 1990s.

Usenet uses a tree structure for its discussion groups. The comp.* hierarchy is for computing issues, with sub trees for everything from old computers to mainframes. The Rec.* hierarchy covers recreation, from sports to TV to music. Microsoft has its own hierarchy for supporting all of its products.

Then there's the alt.binaries.* hierarchy. Under this can be found all manner of binary files that have been converted to text for posting, and which can be reverted back to a binary file with the appropriate utility. In addition to a smattering of legally shared software, the alt.binaries subdomains offer a vast array of seemingly illicit content, including copies of DVDs, videogames, adult materials and MP3s -- lots of MP3s, as evident from this list of auto-newsreader QuadSucker's listing of available MP3 subdomains.

While many ISPs offer Usenet, some limit or completely block the binaries hierarchies -- due either to the large amount of storage space the binaries require, or due to copyright concerns. As a result, there is a thriving industry of non-ISP Usenet service providers, of which Usenet.com is one.

But Usenet.com made the mistake of boasting about all the MP3s you can download from its site: "This gives you access to millions of mp3 files and also enables you to post your own files the same way and share them with the whole world in an instance!"

Not surprisingly, that text is Exhibit B in the RIAA's lawsuit. Another piece of evidence included in the suit is a page on the site specifically discussing MP3 downloading: "Believe it or not, once you get an account with a good Usenet Service Provider, such as Usenet.com, you ca [sic] download all the free mp3s and videos your heart desires. All of them!"

Ben Bajarin, digital media analyst for the Creative Strategies consultancy, said Usenet.com essentially invited the lawsuit, which the RIAA filed on behalf of 14 record labels.

"Obviously you can't be touting the fact of free music, with no consequences, in an unprotected format, as legal," he told InternetNews.com.

The RIAA and MPAA have always been against putting copyrighted material online for anyone to download. It wants the distributors, not the downloaders, Bajarin argues. "If you look at what BitTorrent and other networks that are legit have done, it's been to say 'if you think it's copyrighted and someone put it out there for free, tell us and we'll pull it down."