Computers: From private property to public secrets: Andrew Brown looks at the threat to copyright posed by software piracy and illicit copying from networks threatens to undermine copyright. Andrew Brown reports

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The Independent Online
Imagine a world in which anything can be copied for free. Theft might become impossible, for no matter how many times I stole something, you would still have it. That is the world that computers live in today and lawyers are only just waking up to it.

'If our property can be infinitely reproduced and instantaneously distributed all over the planet without cost, without our knowledge, without its even leaving our possession, how can we protect it? How are we going to get paid for the work we do with our minds? And, if we can't get paid, what will assure the continued creation and distribution of such work?' John Perry Barlow, a lyricist for the Grateful Dead, and lobbyist for Internet, the global information network, asked in a recent article.

His question is much more difficult to answer than it seems. The one aspect lawyers do understand is software piracy, a crime about as common and as reprehended as speeding. No one I know with a computer does not have something on it that has not been stolen, borrowed, or in some other way acquired without the author getting his just rewards. And that is in England, a country where on balance, people do pay for their software. In parts of Southern Europe, it is estimated that 95 per cent of all the commercial software in use has been pirated.

Fast, the Federation Against Software Theft, the industry body set up to control software theft, has made a dent in the practice in UK with high-profile busts such as that of Mirror Group Newspapers last year. This week, it announced the successful prosecution of two people for importing illicit copies of Wordperfect, the word processor.

Much greater difficulties appear when the commodity traded with computers is not software but music, or pictures, or anything else that can represented in digital form. The lawsuit against Compuserve (see below) is one rare example, but it is difficult to escape the suspicion that Compuserve was picked as a target because it is large and prosperous.

Out on the anarchic Internet, there are numerous 'newsgroups' whose sole raison d'etre is exchanging copyrighted sounds or pictures. In fact, the only case that I am aware of in which a large, commercially oriented bulletin board specialising in pornography was shut down happened because the FBI got worried it was being used for large-scale software piracy as well (as it was).

The most recent copyright suit is an odd one. MTV, the giant music televsion network, is suing a former video jockey, Adam Curry, for the use of their name. Last year he set up a computer system on the Internet and registered the name as mtv. com with the central Internet bodies who keep track of which names correspond to which digital addresses. But MTV now claims to own all rights to the name. You can see why: Mr Curry has opened up a considerable market. He claims up to 35,000 visitors a day to his hypertext site. It is remarkably professional for a free Internet area and offers graphics and sound clips from recently released CDs with the blessing of the record companies involved.

The files involved are fairly large: ranging from 1.5 to 2.5 megabytes. If they held plain text instead of music, there would be millions of words in each. Using a fast modem which transmits 14,400 characters a second, these files would take about 15 minutes each to download, for a few minutes of music. But in a couple of years' time, much faster access will be the norm, using fibre-optic cable.

For some people, this seems to threaten the end of all intellectual commerce as we know it, because you cannot have trade without property and copyright, which defines intellectual property, may be as dead as serfdom within 20 years. To quote Barlow again: 'Even the physical/digital containers to which we've become accustomed - floppy disks, CD-roms and other discrete, shrink-wrappable bit-packages - will disappear as all computers jack-in to the global Net.

'The Internet is more than doubling every year and can be expected to become the principal medium of information conveyance and perhaps, eventually, the only one. Once that has happened, all the goods of the Information Age - all of the expressions once contained in books or film strips or newsletters - will exist either as pure thought or something very much like thought: voltage conditions darting around the Net at the speed of light.'

Even so, there are plenty of people preparing to trade on the Net, in any sort of property you like, from intellectual to illicit. Peter Dawe, is the managing director of Pipex, the largest corporate provider of Internet services in the UK. He foresees the Net growing until almost all the trade of the world is carried on there. It will start with software and end with anything you can think of.

What will makes all this business possible is encryption. Modern computers have made it quick and easy to encode almost anything in ways which are uncrackable not just in practice, but in theory too. The US government has tried hard to control the spread of the two most powerful methods, known as DES and PGP, but, since they are both expressed in freely copiable software, they have spread all over the world. Computer cryptography lets you put unbreakable locks on all the property which computer networks have freed. These locks can be personalised and renewed.

Peter Dawe suggests that eventually all software may be distributed for free; all you will buy from the manufacturere is a password to let you use it - and this password will need to be renewed every month. I think I had rather have copyright, but it may be already too late.

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