Shawn Fanning’s 1999 release of Napster forever associated peer-to-peer technology with music piracy, and we all bear the burden of that curse today. Why do I call it a curse? Because p2p can and will be used in far more powerful ways that for distributing copyrighted works, and its inclusion in the incredibly boring copyright squabbles is downright disrespectful to the technology’s potential.
I will continue to hammer home the point that peer-to-peer is about efficiently pooling the resources of all internetworked computers around the world. Folding@home is a fantastic example of this potential. So is Skype, and so is Vonage. Vonage, you say? That’s a new one. Why would I include Vonage in a list of p2p applications? Because Vonage is a service for connecting your computer directly with the person you’re calling, just as Napster connected your computer directly to the person you were downloading from. The RIAA does not want you to think about Vonage when you think about p2p. They want you to think about Napster, to “tar [all p2p applications] with the ‘Napster’ brush”, as Joshua Wattles put it in the MGM v. Grokster amicus brief in the district court. As critical thinkers, we need to break out of this cage.
Now, Robert Cringely might disagree with my use of the term “peer-to-peer” in this context. The wide variety of applications in the wild smudges the lines delineating peer-to-peer, grid computing, and distributed computing, however. My purpose is not to say I am correct versus Cringely in my definition of peer-to-peer. Peer-to-peer on some level means whatever I or Cringely or anyone else says it means. I am talking about p2p as any system that enables a direct network connection between peers that were exclusively clients in the traditional client/server architecture. I think the definition has to be this general given the breathtaking diversity of applications in the field.
Nevertheless, Napster shined a spotlight on what to me is one of the most boring aspects of p2p — using it to distribute the overwhelmingly putrid crap coming out of Hollywood and the music studios. If the first p2p application to explode in the mainstream had been a distributed computing project that found a cure for breast cancer or if SETI@home had actually discovered extra-terrestrial life, the rhetoric surrounding the technology would be far different today. Instead we started in the gutter with Napster.
The RIAA’s suit against LimeWire marks the latest chapter in this saga. Their case is built on “inducement”, the idea that LimeWire as a company has historically encouraged users to use the software for copyright infringement. Now, the MGM v. Grokster decision is more nuanced than that, but I’ll keep it simple for now. In the RIAA’s version of reality, LimeWire sought to inherit the user base of Napster and to capitalize on the ability of the software to be used for infringement.
This could not be further from the truth. When my colleagues and I began work on LimeWire in the summer of 2000, we set out to break Napster’s curse. We saw far more potential in the technology. Far from building a new tool for music piracy, we instead generalized the Gnutella protocol for commerce. We imagined users searching for everything from apartment listings to new recipes on Gnutella, much the way many now use SPARQL, REST, or Amazon’s OpenSearch for searching a variety of web services simultaneously. We added XML schemas to Gnutella requests and responses to enable this shift, and we created the “Lime Peer Server” that businesses could use to serve XML search results over Gnutella. One real estate company even used the system for a short time. Despite our best efforts, it never took off.
Why didn’t the peer server work? What about the other types of searches our XML schemas enabled? Well, LimeWire was always a generalized tool, agnostic to file types. Much as you can attach any type of file to an e-mail, users could share any type of file using Gnutella. P2p technology is particularly effective at sharing large files because you can remove the burden from a single server and instead download files using many different peers. It just so happens that from the year 2000 to 2006 the vast majority of large files on the Internet were copyrighted media files. As a result, that’s what users primarily shared on LimeWire.
Now, compare this for a moment to the RIAA’s inducement claims. Our entire business model for LimeWire was based on selling servers and on getting paid to route traffic to business clients. Making money off of LimeWire the program was never on our radar. How, then, can the RIAA claim that we induced users to use the software for infringing purposes? The fact was that LimeWire users used it to infringe despite the fact that our entire business model had nothing to do with infringement.
Stepping back a bit further, there has always been a disconnect between the p2p developer community and users of file sharing software. The p2p developer community has always been interested in things like how to search millions of computers in real time or how to ensure trust between peers. “Oops, I Did it Again” just never seemed quite as interesting.
The p2p community is also far larger than the developers at file sharing companies. Putting aside the engineers at Vonage for a moment, the p2p community includes the folks at Microsoft Research working on Pastry, the fantastic work coming out of the Stanford Peers Group, as well as researchers at MIT, Rice, Berkeley, and almost every major research university in the world with a computer science department. Why is this community so vast? Because of the potential for p2p to harness the world’s collective computing capacity more efficiently to solve the world’s most pressing problems. Using this technology to make “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” more universally available is not high on the priority list for the researchers at Microsoft just as it wasn’t at the forefront of my mind when I worked on LimeWire. I’d greatly prefer it if users were more interested in contributing their computing cycles to the understanding of protein folding or to distributing their own creative works than they were in downloading Jenna Jameson’s latest.
The fact is, we are all still living with Napster’s legacy, with the RIAA attempting to draw a straight line from Napster through Aimster, Grokster, Kazaa, and now LimeWire. The world is more complicated than that, and we are too sophisticated to believe that storyline despite its attractive simplicity.