Forbidden Fruit

It's the world's largest music and movies superstore, and everything in it is free—and illegal. Every month, some five billion illegal downloads are passed around the internet, and the entertainment industry sues several hundred people. CP writer St

Nobody knows for sure how much illicit product is traded on the internet, or what it really costs the affected industries. But the rough consensus is that some 15 million people around the world are online trading illicit files at a given moment on any day, and about 650,000 pirated copies of movies are downloaded each day. In all, five billion or so illegal files are thought to change hands on the internet every month. To put that number in perspective, the greatest commercial downloading success story so far is Apple's iTunes, which celebrated the sale of its one billionth download a few months ago—after more than five years in business.

There have been two phases, so far, in the almost decade-long history of internet piracy: the Napster era and the post-Napster era. The first began in 1998, spurred by the introduction of mp3 players and high-speed internet connections. Music lovers who plugged into Napster—an indexing system for searching out and downloading recordings—found a vast repository containing nearly every record they'd ever dreamed of having, all free for the taking. This period ended in 2001, when the courts inevitably got around to declaring the whole enterprise illegal under U.S. copyright laws.

But downloading continued with barely a missed beat after the Napster decision. As the law and the entertainment industry bore down through a combination of personal lawsuits against users and police-assisted shutdowns of offending sites and servers, the downloading scene retreated in favor of a more small-is-beautiful approach: The number of sites serving illegal downloads or hosting trading clubs mushroomed. Users worked at getting cagier about covering their tracks. And the entertainment industry followed in their wake, trying to close down the highest-volume offenders and scare users into quitting now, before subpoenas arrived at their door. This has been the stalemate of the past five years, with copyright owners winning battle after battle and making dubious progress in the larger war.

How ingrained is the culture of everyday piracy? In 2003, Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah said at a hearing on copyright infringement that he favored a copy-protection system that would "destroy" the computer of anyone illegally downloading software. It later emerged that the JavaScript menu system at Hatch's own website had been designed with unlicensed software.

The first priority for the internet when it was invented—not by Al Gore, but the U.S. military—was to function as a communications infrastructure during catastrophic events such as a nuclear war. But the Pentagon's grand computer experiment had other goals as well, chief among them to develop a system for the transfer of data files between networks of computers. The rudiments of computer file-sharing began in the 1960s with the trading of technical papers, data sets, and computer programs on the file-transfer protocol (FTP) sites operated by many university computer departments. FTP technology led to the 1979 creation of Usenet (the network more commonly known today as newsgroups), which allowed messages to be posted to a main computer and then accessed by users around the world.

In those days, Usenet was mainly the province of scientists and academics. But as the '80s came on, bringing the first wave of personal computers as mass-consumer toys, it changed most of the rules and priorities of the computer-connectivity project that Pentagon insiders had originally dubbed DARPANET. PCs were soon followed by dial-up services, like CompuServe and AOL, that offered customers a smattering of news and some Usenet-style chatboards.

But from the start commercial pressures augured for more kinds of entertainment in glitzier multimedia packages. That meant, for practical purposes, solving problems of connection speed and data-compression that had never mattered much on Usenet. Internet entrepreneurs and service providers spent the first half of the '90s leapfrogging each other in advertised connection speed, until the advent of high-speed cable and satellite connections in the latter years of the decade.

Faster connections may have inspired the sharing of files previously considered too big to upload (photos, mainly, in the beginning), but each new advance in file-sharing was made feasible only by data-compacting software: The amount of raw code in something as simple as a digital snapshot photo is prohibitively large to post or send around otherwise. And while it's relatively easy to shrink digital data as small as you want, quality is another matter. The products of early file-compression technologies were usually wretched-looking or -sounding. Early webcasts in RealAudio sounded like radio show transcription discs from the 1920s. The real breakthrough in the compression of sound files was Microsoft's 1998 rollout of the first commercial mp3 player.

Like email, a technology marking its 25th anniversary this year, the mp3 existed long before anyone thought to package it up for the masses. The MPEG Audio Layer III, invented in the late '80s by an engineer named Karlheinz Brandenburg, stemmed from a German government contract to develop a means of sending music over phone lines. (The song used for testing purposes was "Tom's Diner," making Suzanne Vega the first artist to be pirated into the mp3 format.) But it wasn't until the release of the Windows98 operating system, featuring the still-popular WinAmp player, that swapping mp3s became a prominent national pastime—especially at colleges whose campuses were outfitted with the newer high-speed internet lines.

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