Pennsylvania-based SightSound.com today said it plans to enlist Gnutella for commercial purposes--software that most copyright holders view as a dangerous tool for illegal copying. The experiment will carry SightSound's full-length feature movie content into the belly of the piracy beast under the protection of Microsoft's digital rights management (DRM) system.
The move puts up for grabs on the Gnutella network a dozen encrypted movie files, for which SightSound has secured online distribution rights. Once people obtain the file, they are required to rent or purchase a license to view the movie.
Microsoft said it is not worried about any piracy or security concerns.
"SightSound employs a good, solid, proven digital rights management technology that comes from Microsoft, and it's proven to work well," said Dave Fester, general manager of marketing for Microsoft's digital media division. "It doesn't make copying movies easier; rather, it's just a promotional vehicle for (SightSound)."
SightSound was unavailable for comment because it is in the "quiet period" before its initial public offering. CEO Scott Sander said in a statement that "a new generation of computer users has embraced file-sharing software to obtain their entertainment, and now they have legally available movies.
"File sharing doesn't have to mean file stealing," he added.
Still, SightSound's gamble is likely to shape up as a significant test of the notion that digital content can be freely released onto the Internet, using encryption and other DRM techniques to ensure copies are obtained legally and paid for.
The track record so far for securing online content has been less than promising.
An experiment by book publisher Simon & Schuster to release the Stephen King novella "Riding the Bullet" online, using DRM security features from Glassbook and Softlock, quickly fell to hackers.
Microsoft's Windows Media secure audio format was hacked the day it was released. The Windows Media video format, MPEG-4, has also been hacked, giving movie pirates a powerful compression technology, known as DivX, for transferring large video files over the Internet.
Nevertheless, Microsoft has made DRM a major part of the sales pitch for its digital technologies, winning converts from several top music labels, including Seagram's Universal Music Group.
Security experts have flagged other problems that could affect SightSound's plan to distribute its content over Gnutella.
"Anyone who is on Gnutella is potentially vulnerable and needs to be very careful and cautious," said Scott Blake, security program manager for Bindview. "It's very easy for someone to utilize the Gnutella network to propagate a Trojan horse, a file that appears to be something useful but in fact is the seed of one's destruction."
"It's somewhat irresponsible for (SightSound) to be pushing a software that's fundamentally insecure as this," he said.
SightSound has servers in seven cities, including Los Angeles, New York and Seattle, and hundreds of thousands of movies can be downloaded each day.
In April, the 5-year-old company reached an agreement with Miramax Films to distribute 12 films on the Internet for nonexclusive pay-per-view distribution. Last month, SightSound released a made-for-Net movie, "Quantum Project."