net.wars: Copyright plays

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 13 December 2013

Evil - or benign - file-sharers checking in on The Pirate Bay this week discovered the site had vanished. Hours later, it was back via a domain registration in the Ascension Islands; today it's woken up in Peru, apparently at rest for now. TorrentFreak reports, however, that the next phase will be different: The Pirate Bay will circumvent the domain name system entirely. The plan is for a standalone browser and plugins for Chrome and Firefox that will turn the entire system into P2P, taking the process of decentralization that began with the takedown of Napster to the next level.

Wendy M Grossman

Meanwhile, rightsholders themselves are gaming the system. Also this week, it was announced that The Beatles are releasing a batch of unreleased recordings in order to prevent them from falling into the public domain. Under the most recent European law regarding sound recordings, record companies are required to "use or lose" such material. At least Apple-the-record-company is planning to keep the new releases available; that report notes that Bob Dylan - or rather, Sony - finessed a similar situation by releasing the material on a set of six vinyl LPs. That may have slowed the material's arrival on torrent sites by a few minutes.

It's interesting to speculate how rightsholders will respond to this next phase of the copyright arms race. Probably somewhere in a Big Media boardroom there's someone going, "Couldn't we just run a browser check when someone tries to stream our content and block delivery to anyone who has The Pirate Bay installed?" Sort of the same logic that has CBS refusing to load content on one of my computers because it blocks ad networks in hosts.txt. The answer, of course, is that the sort of person who installs The Pirate Bay is the sort of person who runs multiple browsers on different machines, always retaining one digital personality that can successfully pretend to be acceptable.

Eliminating the DNS as a central point of failure is an idea that's been creeping closer for years; the DNS was essential for the growth of the Web and email, but is much less so for newer services – and apps ignore it entirely. While Nominet fiddles with the structure of .uk and frets about its role in Internet governance, the reality is that both are part of an older paradigm competing with a newer one. Their experience is not unlike that of rightsholders themselves or, before all of them, the British Empire. They won't die off, but their business models and the way they think about their place in the world must change. Meantime, app store (and Web store) owners are moving into place as new central points of failure; Google is removing torrent apps from its Web store

Ever since the Snowden revelations started there's been talk of Balkanizing the Internet. In a grander version of "no one can call my sister an ape but me", countries who spy on their own citizens are nonetheless resentful when other countries do it. You can hardly blame them for wanting to close down their network perimeters or for seeing protecting their citizens from foreign spying as more important than protecting "the essential freedoms of the Internet". It probably won't work anyway, or at least not the way they think. The Pirate Bay's move reminds, however, that the Net is already Balkanized, even if it's porous to the technically adept. The "dark nets" beloved of mainstream fear-mongers do exist, but from an individual perspective they're much more diverse than usually depicted; I'd include all those language areas we can't interpret, and the millions of services each of us has never tried.

As the novelty of the Net wears off, even though our connection speeds continue to increase our inclination to explore beyond the things we use and need most often seems to be decreasing. The app paradigm fits this reality perfectly. For most people, the Net itself is not an object of interest. Friends' kids want to play games on their tablet; they don't get frustrated because they can't program it. Which is why "digital natives" is so much nonsense. The real natives are us 50-somethings who adopted the Internet in the early 1990s when it was young and its bones were not only visible but as malleable as a newborn's skull. We know how to do things that today's 20-somethings, who have grown up with it as a black box, in general do not. They just look fast when they're typing into Google.

And that, in turn, is why, while I don't care much what happens to The Pirate Bay itself - to gain a good appreciation of the site's founders and motives, watch the movie TPB-AFK - I do think we are at real risk here. Except the risk is letting copyright law become the Net's single point of failure by dictating how everything else may function.

Stories about the border wars between cyberspace and real life are posted occasionally during the week at the net.wars Pinboard - or follow on Twitter.

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Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) (but please turn off HTML).