Kung Fu Panda is doing a great job for Paramount this summer. As of today, the movie has grossed $196,680,294. It is still playing on 3,347 screens nationwide and after five weeks in release it is still number five behind Get Smart, Wanted, Wall-E and Hancock. So imagine how surprised I was to receive an email from a casual acquaintance yesterday offering me a link to an HD copy of the film.
Kung Fu Panda won't be released on home video for months, so not only was this guaranteed to be an illegal copy, it was guaranteed to be either a bad video bootleg made with someone's HD camcorder in the theater, or a very good copy of a stolen file -- the file was pristine.
Now, this is not an unusual type of email to receive and it is not a new phenomenon. There are literally hundreds of P2P (peer-to-peer) networks out there with copies of every movie ever made for the taking. What gave me pause was that this particular file was not on a P2P network, it was on sitting on a private, subscription-based storage cloud.
Other than the legal issues, there is really no risk to downloading this file. Nobody knows what I'm downloading. A few years ago, you would call this type of private network a "darknet." But that's not exactly what this is. This is more like the type of service-layer, Internet-based, storage cloud you'd use to back up your hard drive, send large business files or move large disk images around on. And, because it is private and from a trusted source, the file won't be a spoof or infect my computer with a virus. All the stuff that keeps me out of the P2P networks doesn't apply here. Yikes!
This may seem like a subtle change from a legal point of view. It probably is. But, from my perspective, the ramifications are paradigm shifting. Think about this -- you have a bunch of pretty big movie and TV show files on your hard drive that you bought from iTunes or ripped from DVD. You really need the local hard disk space back so subscribe to a service like RapidShare or MegaUpload. You back up the files to the cloud. So far, so good.
A week or so later, you're online chatting with friends and someone says something about some episode of a show or movie you have stored. Being the very friendly type of person you are, you send them a link to the file. After all, it's not that different from lending them a physical CD or DVD, right?
At the end of the day, P2P networks and strange or alien files are not going to cause any more economic hardship for the content industry than they are causing right now. However, good natured, good citizens using private storage clouds are going to be hugely hurtful. And, if good citizens can cause irreparable harm by paving the road to hell, imagine what bad natured, bad citizens will be able to accomplish with the same technology. Trust me, the computer network does not know the nature of its users.
Just for fun, I sojourned to a few storage cloud sites and got an up-close, personal view of the issue. Here's some hands-on knowledge:
YouSendIt is a seemingly harmless service that now offers an Outlook plug-in that will automatically use a storage cloud to send oversized files. The free service is file-size limited, you can pay for big uploads if you need to. YouSendIt says that businesses will like their service because of the value-add of trackability. They might. People will like it because the business is paying for it and they can send monster files everywhere through Outlook.
Sure private "light-nets" enable businesses to move large files easily, but the darknet side is a safe haven for pirates and file sharers of all sorts.
A simple Google search for "Coldplay sendspace" will round up numerous results for full album .zips of their latest and back catalog.
With sites like RapidShare and Mediafire, file sharers don't need P2P networks or bittorrent networks or bandwidth. All that is needed to upload and share a file is a standard compression tool (stuffit, winzip) and Internet access. Once uploaded, the file is searchable from all over the Internet and can be shared with anyone. Or, you can simply make it available to your private darknet.
Some sites have delay periods for non-members, but waiting 90 seconds won't deter anyone who is trying to get access to a specific file. Also, sites like SendSpace and RapidShare only allow a certain number of downloads per file (100 for YouSendIt), while others, like ZShare and Mediafire, keep a file active as long as it has been downloaded in the past six months. Many sites offer premium membership packages, but they aren't really necessary, unless you're sharing a lot of GB's. For Free, any one can download applications, albums, and movies -- it's as simple as highlighting a file on your screen.
If you're interested in seeing all of this for yourself, here's a short list of sites to visit. Oh, and don't forget to visit Yahoo Groups and Google Groups. Pretty much anywhere that tech companies offer free storage, you'll find a bunch of people sharing files.
There are many, many more. Some of these companies were funded by selling their investors on the idea that this type of file transfer could be ad-supported. It is not a sustainable model. According to Yaron Samid, the founder of Pando, the bandwidth and storage costs add up too quickly and the sites must restrict file sizes or charge for their services.
Everyone I know is starting to use cloud storage for backups as well as the normal doing of business. In a very short period of time, this technology is going to become so easy-to-use and commonplace that the law of unintended consequences may innocently take the movie business to the place where the music business has gone to die.
I've looked at clouds from both sides now. Want your mind blown, check out Apple's MobileMe, which launches today. Then you'll realize, you really don't know clouds at all.