Altnet, a company that distributes files legally through Kazaa and other peer-to-peer services, has sent legal threats to nine companies that monitor or meddle with file-trading networks, accusing them of violating its patent rights.
The cease-and-desist orders are the first legal use of a patent Altnet unveiled last June , under which it claims to hold rights to one of the most common means of identifying files on peer-to-peer networks. That technique, which uses a "hash," or a digital representation of all the information in a file, has even been used by the Recording Industry Association of America in its fight against online copyright infringers.
Altnet, a division of Brilliant Digital Entertainment and a close partner with Kazaa parent Sharman Networks, has spent months in discussions with other file-swapping companies about licensing the technology, according to Executive Vice President Derek Broes. But the company has chosen to send legal warning letters to this group of companies because they're using the technology in ways that Altnet wouldn't necessarily approve of. Among other things, Altnet pays Kazaa for the right to place its customers' files at the top of Kazaa search results.
"Our intent has always been to commercialize peer to peer, and if anyone is misusing our patent for any reason, I have to protect that intellectual property," Broes said. "If they're building business on the backs of the patent I worked hard to acquire, then they should talk to us."
Altnet's action, while aimed at some of the underground file-swapping world's chief foes, is likely to ruffle feathers on both sides of the technological fence. The company's claim to own rights to such a basic file-identification technique has sparked considerable controversy inside peer-to-peer circles and has in part been responsible for a political divide that has created two separate lobbying and policy groups in Washington, D.C.
The company acquired the patent in late 2002, from a researcher who now serves as Altnet's chief scientist.
At least one of the companies now targeted by Altnet says the claim is simply off base.
BigChampagne, a Los Angeles-based market research company that's come to prominence recently by providing record labels and other entertainment companies with reports of what files are most popular online, says it doesn't use Altnet's technology.
"I think at first blush this looks like a case of mistaken identity," said BigChampagne Chief Executive Officer Eric Garland. Identifying files "is not really the business we're in."
Garland said his company does do some file identification in order to ensure the accuracy of its aggregate data reports but does not use the hash technique.
Several of the other companies targeted take more direct action inside file-swapping networks, posting false versions of files in the hope of steering would-be downloaders away from the real ones, or taking snapshots of individual users' hard drives to use in copyright-infringement actions.
The full list of companies targeted by the Altnet letters includes
• Ranger Online
Altnet is asking the companies to stop using the hash technique in their businesses unless they take a license.
Broes said he had no immediate plans to pursue a similar strategy against the RIAA, which has publicly outlined its use of file hashes to identify copyrighted files downloaded from Kazaa users' hard drives.
"We have a good relationship with the RIAA, and we have lines of communication open with them," Broes said. "It is not a notice that we have served."