Start-ups try to dupe file-swappers

False versions of songs are turning up in file-swapping networks, thanks to new technologies designed to frustrate song-traders until they just log off.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
4 min read
A new generation of anti-file-swapping tools is being built and used by copyright holders and their allies, threatening to muddy the digital waters for devoted downloaders.

A handful of entrepreneurial technology companies are advancing techniques once used haphazardly by record companies and Napster-haters, in ways that may be far more destructive to the credibility of file-swapping networks than were previous efforts.

The most prevalent tactic used today, growing quickly into a mature business, is dubbed "spoofing," or decoying. Companies seed file-swapping networks with false versions of songs, hoping that file-swappers will download the fake files and log off in frustration. More advanced hacker-like tools may also be on the way, depending on whether Congress passes a bill allowing copyright owners more latitude in fighting peer-to-peer piracy.

"What we do is make peer-to-peer a lot less fun and help users do the right thing," said Marc Morgenstern, CEO of Overpeer, one of the early leaders in the business.

The maturation of the anti-piracy business is coming at a moment when the efficacy of the music and movie industries' three-year legal battles against peer-to-peer networks is being called into question.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) have successfully used lawsuits to force companies including Napster, Scour and Audiogalaxy to pull plugs on file-swapping networks used by millions of people. But other, potentially more powerful, networks have sprung up to take their place, and people have flocked to these venues.

Not the first time
From the beginning of file-swapping's popularity--and before, through other mediums such as pirate Web sites--critics have planted files with false to discourage file-swappers or advertise their own wares. Dubbed "Cuckoo Eggs" by one enterprising group, the activity gained considerable attention, but it never managed to make a significant dent in the overall flood of downloads.

With new technology, infrastructure and financial resources, the new generation of "spoofers" believes it can do more. The companies refuse to talk about their clients, but industry insiders say an assortment of record labels, movie studios and software companies are already using their services.

Overpeer, founded last year in South Korea, has already filed for several patents on its technology for planting specific types of false files and distributing them around file-swapping networks.

In one of those patents, published in late June, the company describes methods of altering the sound quality of a music file, or dubbing in distorted sounds or another voice.

The company is believed by some online to be responsible for a wave of edited versions of Eminem songs that appeared before that artist's recent album release. Neither Overpeer nor Eminem's label, Interscope, would comment.

Overpeer's Morgenstern, a former executive for the ASCAP music-licensing agency, noted that his company has been operating online for several weeks and on a smaller test scale for two months. While mum on details of clients and specific technologies, he says the false files will range from simple decoys to messages directing downloaders to authorized sites, depending on his clients' request.

"It's a carrot-and-stick approach," Morgenstern said. "We want to make sure it's not so easy to illegally share. But we also want to direct users to places where they can do the right thing."

By the numbers
Barb Wire Networks, another start-up aiming at the business, was inspired by a 2001 Xerox PARC research paper indicating that just a small percentage of online file-swappers provided the vast majority of the content available at any given moment.

That company is now building a large network of nodes that will tap into peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa or Gnutella, in theory overwhelming this small group of content with false files, CEO Ralph Clark said. That network will be online late this year or early in 2003, Clark said.

To be sure, the services have a long way to go before proving they can make a serious dent in peer-to-peer services. Millions of people continue to download file-swapping software every month, and at any given time, well over a million people can be logged into a service such as Kazaa. Making a splash in a pool that large will be difficult, although the companies' ability to focus on just a few songs, movies or software packages will likely help them amplify their effect.

For the most part, record labels stay mum on just how they're using the tools. The RIAA, the industry trade group that represents labels in court and in Washington and provides some legal advice to its members, says it doesn't use spoofing itself, but it praises it as a "lawful and appropriate self-help measure." The MPAA declined comment on the techniques.

Certainly music subscription services, which are among the companies most directly affected by peer-to-peer services, are cautiously welcoming the spoofing rise.

"It's not a black-and-white thing. These networks will change gradually over time," said Sean Ryan, CEO of Listen.com, whose Rhapsody subscription service competes with similar major-label backed products. "They won't go away...But spoofing points out the increasing problems that these unregulated networks are going to encounter."