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Wednesday, October 15, 2003

The Future of File Sharing

Clay Shirky has a useful piece on file sharing. He suggests that following a thorough reading of people like Albert Barabasi and Duncan Watts, the RIAA for once are trying to follow a fairly rational policy - which he terms 'crush the connectors' - of trying to break file sharing networks - creating an effect rather like the electricity blackouts - by breaking them at their most vulnerable points. As he suggests, short term this could prove fairly effective, but since this is an action/reaction process (evolving rather like the bacteria/antibiotic one), this won't bne the end of the story. What then could be the impact of the 'crush the connectors' strategy (thanks Rajesh for the link):

Small amounts of social file-sharing, by sending files as email attachments or uploading them to personal web servers, have always co-existed with the purpose-built file-sharing networks, but the two patterns may fuse as a result of the Crush the Connectors strategy. If that transition happens on a large scale, what might the future look like?

Most file-sharing would go on in groups from a half dozen to a few dozen -- small enough that every member can know every other member by reputation. Most file-sharing would take place in the sorts of encrypted workspaces designed for business but adapted for this sort of social activity. Some users would be members of more than one space, thus linking several cells of users. The system would be far less densely interconnected than Kazaa or Gnutella are today, but would be more tightly connected than a simple set of social cells operating in isolation.

It's not clear whether this would be good news or bad news for the RIAA. There are obviously several reasons to think it might be bad news: file-sharing would take place in spaces that would be much harder to inspect or penetrate; the lowered efficiency would also mean fewer high-yield targets for legal action; and the use of tools by groups that knew one another might make prosecution more difficult, because copyright law has often indemnified some types of non-commercial sharing among friends (e.g. the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992).

There is also good news that could come from such social sharing systems, however. Reduced efficiency might send many users into online stores, and users seeking the hot new song might be willing to buy them online rather than wait for the files to arrive through social diffusion, which would effectively turn at least some of these groups into buyers clubs.

The RIAA's reaction to such social sharing will be unpredictable. They have little incentive to seek solutions that don't try to make digital files behave like physical objects. They may therefore reason that they have little to lose by attacking social sharing systems with a vengeance. Whatever their reaction, however, it is clear that the current environment favors the development and adoption of social and collaborative tools, which will go on to have effects well outside the domain of file-sharing, because once a tool is adopted for one purpose, it often takes on a life of its own, as its users press such social tools to new uses.
Source: Clay Sharkey's Internet Writings

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