Mac Lab Report

Why File Swapping and Jon Lech Johansen Are Wrong

- 2003.12.12

The other day I heard a couple of students discussing downloading songs and witnessed the RIAA's worst nightmare. "Man, ever since they started suing people, LimeWire's gotten really slow," says the one kid. "What's LimeWire?" says the other, and thus the infection of file swapping (file stealing, says the RIAA) spreads.

Several years ago, I predicted the demise of Napster (to my students, not in print, alas) because it was essentially a conduit for illegal file-sharing. My students scoffed at the time, but eventually Napster sank (until its recent reanimation from the dead).

Like the reanimation of the dead in a Stephen King book, the thing you get back isn't always as the thing you buried.

I'm ready to go out on a limb and declare the same thing for this Jon Lech Johansen character; sooner or later he's either going to wind up jailed or fined so much he will be discouraged from providing the tools he does.

Johansen is the kid who broke the DVD encryption code a while back and has recently posted a little program that lets iTunes Music Store users - at least, those on the PC side - swap files without restriction.

He maintains in his blog that Mac users who are complaining about his new toy are ignorant of copyright law. "None of the posters address copyright law at all," he smirks in a recent post.

What Johansen and other would-be Robin Hoods fail to realize is that there is plenty of precedent for society to place a law against the use of property that is injurious to others and to society as a whole. For example, when you buy a car, you assume certain responsibilities. You are expected to drive the car in a safe manner, not crashing into trees and people at random - once you own it, you can't do anything you want with it.

There is right, and there is wrong, and what Johansen has done is wrong.

I personally have no idea if the RIAA's assertion that downloading is killing CD sales is true or not. What I do know is that the musicians have spent many hours creating their works, and they deserve to have a way to ensure that they are paid for their work.

The restrictions Apple has placed on the use of iTunes files are entirely reasonable, because they give you wide latitude in the way you can use the files. The only real restriction is precisely the one that Johansen has cracked - and that is not only legally but morally wrong.

Johansen and those like him are misguided because they believe they are serving the greater good by challenging copyright precedents set by the DMCA. If they are ultimately successful, there will be no professional studio music left on the Internet (or in the few remaining music stores) because only amateurs would bother giving it away for free.

They would serve us far better by challenging the ongoing hijacking of the expiration of copyright by Disney, which is clearly against the public interest.

But that wouldn't be as smirk-worthy, would it?

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is a longtime Mac user. He was using digital sensors on Apple II computers in the 1980's and has networked computers in his classroom since before the internet existed. In 2006 he was selected at the California Computer Using Educator's teacher of the year. His students have used NASA space probes and regularly participate in piloting new materials for NASA. He is the author of two books and numerous articles and scientific papers. He currently teaches astronomy and physics in California, where he lives with his twin sons, Jony and Ben.< And there's still a Mac G3 in his classroom which finds occasional use.

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