RIAA v. P2P: Same Old Song

WASHINGTON — The music industry and the new public face of peer-to-peer (P2P) networks came to Capitol Hill on Thursday to break bread and find common ground. They ate the lunch, but compromise between the hostile litigants was more elusive.

Speaking at a noontime affair that drew approximately 50 congressional staffers monitoring the possible need for federal P2P laws, representatives of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and P2P United politely traded familiar complaints and added little new insight to the public policy debate.

Since the courts closed the original Napster four years ago, Congress has held several high-profile hearings to investigate continued widespread copyright infringement on P2P networks. Lawmakers prefer private sector solutions to federal mandates for protecting digital intellectual property, tracking its usage and collecting payments and fees. But a frustrated Congress hasn’t seen any.

While Congress monitors the situation, the RIAA continues its scorched earth litigation campaign, claiming the software distributors represented by P2P United are openly facilitating copyright infringement. Last fall, the RIAA launched a new round of lawsuits aimed at individual users of P2P networks, bringing the total number of complaints to more than 1,000.

The P2Ps have not collapsed under the legal assault. In Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios v. Grokster, the P2Ps won a significant victory when a U.S. District Court ruled that while P2P networks are used for significant copyright infringements, the technology itself has substantial non-infringing uses. The RIAA is appealing.

P2Ps also formed their own trade association and hired Adam Eisgrau, former Senate Judiciary Committee counsel to Dianne Feinstein (D-CA), as the executive director of P2P United.

The RIAA says its must continue to sue to protect its member company copyrights because the P2P United members are more interested in generating advertising revenues than developing sanctioned downloads that compensate copyright owners.

“They’ve done nothing to compensate artists for the last four years,” David Sutphen, the RIAA’s vice president for government affairs. “iTunes and others have figured out business models to reward artists and sell music over the Internet.”

Sutphen insists the RIAA is not trying to stifle P2P technology, but it will continue every legal effort to stop the illegal trafficking of copyrighted songs through the file-sharing networks until they develop a compensation plan for the labels and artists.

The RIAA supports a filtering system to stop the distribution of copyrighted materials over P2P networks. Last year, U.S. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-SC) called for P2P United members to develop the filters to stop “illegal materials” from being shared online.

“From the perspective of the labels, technology does now exist in the marketplace to filter out copyrighted music from P2P networks,” Sutphen said. “It’s a legitimate distribution model and [the P2Ps] could start tomorrow with filtering.”

Eisgrau said filters work with a centralized file-sharing network like the old Napster but are ineffective for today’s decentralized P2P systems, a position supported by Joe Stewart, a senior security researcher with LURHQ.

“Filters are similar to what anti-virus companies try to do and it doesn’t work,” Stewart told the audience. “It just creates an arms race. It’s trivial to write these encryption algorithms.”

Stewart added, “File sharing is a social phenomenon, not a technology issue and we shouldn’t demonize it.”

P2P United supports a compensation scheme proposed earlier this week by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a digital rights organization. According to the plan, the music industry would organize a “collecting society,” similar to ASCAP and BMI, which then would offer file-sharers an opportunity to get legitimate for a set monthly fee.

In exchange, P2P users would be free to download whatever songs they like, using whatever software works best for them.

“The more people share, the more money goes to rights holders,” the EFF white paper sates. “The more competition in applications, the more rapid the innovation and improvement.”

Suthpen said the EFF scheme has a “huge freeloader problem, it assumes everyone will switch. A collective license is an artificially imposed value. We can have a technology solution for a technology problem without imposing a collective license.”

For policy makers attending the luncheon, it didn’t appear much common ground had been reached.

News Around the Web