Frustrated by the continuing presence of free music on the Internet, the recording industry asked for Congress’ blessing on Thursday to gum up the online networks they blame for slowing their sales.
Congress is considering expanded legal protection for record labels who resort to sabotage in their ongoing battle with “peer to peer” networks that allow users to freely trade music, movies and other copyrighted material.
The recording industry offered a glimpse into its tactics, which include blocking transfers and flooding the network with dummy songs, and promised a House of Representatives subcommittee that they would not disrupt the Internet or reach into individuals’ computers.
“I can’t foresee any scenario where it would be in our interest to go into anybody’s computer and delete a file,” said Hilary Rosen, chairman of the Recording Industry Association of America.
But some lawmakers worried that overzealous copyright enforcement measures could end up targeting innocent computer users, and said they did not want to encourage a high-tech game of cat and mouse that could easily get out of hand.
“What are the implications for the Internet’s functionality when the inevitable arms race develops?” asked Virginia Democratic Rep. Rick Boucher.
Boucher noted that overzealous copyright enforcers have already mistaken a photo entitled “Portrait of Mrs. harrison williams 1943” for a song by former Beatle George Harrison, and demanded that Internet provider UUNet terminate the account of a customer who posted a book report on Harry Potter.
The recording industry has aggressively fought peer-to-peer services since Napster gained widespread popularity more than two years ago.
While the recording industry was able to persuade a California court to shut Napster down, it has so far been less successful against next-generation services that are based overseas or operate in a decentralized manner.
The industry has tried different tactics recently, targeting individual users with automated tracking software and launching an advertising campaign to discourage illegal downloads.
Record labels have also turned to Los Angeles technology firm MediaDefender Inc., which floods peer-to-peer services with decoy songs in an attempt to crowd out copyrighted material.
MediaDefender president Randy Saaf said the company can also block downloads through a technique called “interdiction,” which closes off a user’s hard drive to others on the network.
The industry has used the decoy service heavily, to the point where nine out of ten versions on a peer-to-peer network may be empty shells, he said. Interdiction has been less popular, he said, as it may run afoul of anti-hacking laws.
Kazaa and Morpheus said after the hearing that they have seen few effects from record-company sabotage, even as Kazaa released a new version that allows users to screen out unreliable files.
“We haven’t had a plethora of complaints about dummy files… It would be misguided to imagine that’s the only reason” for the upgrade, said Kazaa spokeswoman Kelly Larabee.
Steve Griffin, who watched from the audience as lawmakers and witnesses castigated his Morpheus peer-to-peer service, said Congress would do better to establish a per-song royalty rate to compensate copyright holders, rather than endorsing high-tech warfare between record labels and peer-to-peer networks.
“It’s impractical and unfeasible to simply wipe out all the hard drives of America,” Griffin said.