“Are you really thinking about releasing this?…
…be very, very careful!”
It was the consistent, disheartening reply I got whenever I told a browncoat about OFF. There’s an irony to war. Those who sit out a lost battle think, “I wish I’d been there fighting.” Those who barely survive never say, “Wish you’d been with me.”
We were living in a post Grokster world. That single battle completely reversed the tide of war. Few of us civilians had any clue.
Mike & Charles had waged countless legal battles. They’d won a bunch, lost, then won again. To me, Grokster seemed just another momentary setback. Beyond a little industry gloating, nothing had really changed. Every P2P network continued to function. Most of their company web sites were still up and resistance was growing.
In 2003 the RIAA had begun suing P2P users. Ten thousand+ lawsuits later anti-RIAA hostility had reached a fevered pitch. Beyond “fighting for our rights” most P2P users were ready to burn the recording industry to the ground.
Unfortunately, from a legal perspective our user front was pure chaos. There was simply no way to organize thousands of scared parents receiving “Send us $5,000 now! Or $500,000 later!” letters. Most caved as soon as they learned the cost of retaining council.
Nonetheless, with the a dozen companies fighting and millions of users raging, momentum it seemed (at least to me) was on our side.
But here in the trenches things were different. I tried to pretend nothing had changed but Sam Yagan’s speech made it clear they had. It wasn’t his actual remarks which struck me. It was the finality with which he made them.
That [Senate] hearing represented a turning point for me, as I made a public commitment to work closely with the RIAA to respond to their concerns regarding the eDonkey client.
Before I get into my thoughts, I want to make it exceedingly clear that I have no axes to grind and in particular, I have had only positive interactions with executives at the RIAA and the major labels.
Sam, Clay and I headed deeper into the hotel for privacy after his morning keynote. Charles had quietly suggested we not start our conversation on the floor of the show. It felt a bit like a lawyer admonishing us never to talk in the courthouse.
“Your ideas are really cool,” Sam said after patiently hearing me out. “But, we’re out of the media business. It’s a shame because your advertising model would have fit in nicely.”
“What do you mean out of the business?” I queried incredulously.
“You heard about our recent release?”
“Some mysterious critical vulnerability,” I replied, smiling sarcastically.
“Yeah… Well not really… It’s not publicly known but we’ve been in negotiations with the RIAA. That release was part of the deal they… well… ultimatum they made us—actually.
They were going to keep us in court for years, bankrupt us, then take everything anyway. All we want is to get out and move on.”
I knew exactly what was coming next, but…
“In a couple of months, after they think enough people have upgraded, they’re going to throw a switch and kill the network. eDonkey’s days are numbered.”
…it still put a knot in my stomach.
“So what are you planning to do next?” I asked trying to ignore the discomfort.
“Oh, we are already doing it.” Sam replied confidently. “My partners and I are launching a dating web site called *OK Cupid.*”
I had to smile! “Wow, great minds think alike,” I laughed. “I developed a computer dating system for my honors thesis back in 1987…”
“But what about eMule?” Clay interrupted.
“There’s nothing we can do about them,” Sam said with the faintest trace of a smile.
It had been a true pirate war in every sense. The RIAA had even “pirated” the kill-switch idea.
Early on, Kazaa had licensed technology to Morpheus. Then in an intriguing fit of drama, they locked all Morpheus clients out of the network. The crippling attack forced Streamcast to switch to Gnutella in a panic.
Subterfuge, deceit, backstabbing… the browncoat tails had everything!
Michael himself pointed out that prior to licensing FastTrack he’d run OpenNap servers. That technology (“pirated” from Napster), was what likely gave eMule the idea to reverse engineer Sam’s eDonkey. It wasn’t just information, it seemed, even P2P systems want to be free!
But the Kazaa folks were the ultimate pirates. They’d actually taken to the seas. To avoid prosecution they’d moved headquarters across three continents, eventually landing on a small island in the pacific.
“The OFF concept is really cool.” He told me. “I hope it goes well. But as part of my settlement, I promised not to do anything else subversive. I’m even abandoning a few private projects I was working on.”
That stomach knot came back every time another genius abandoned their passion.
“But hey,” Anthony said discretely, “if you promise to keep me out of it, I have a cool idea! It could work well for OFF…”
Out-of-band linking, How perfect!
Settlement fever was endemic. At lunch I met Marc Freedman. He was abandoning TrustyFiles, a multi-network P2P client I’d never even heard of. Nor, apparently, had the RIAA. They hadn’t even sent a C&D. “Too risky,” was Marc’s curt summary of the situation.
No, Grokster was not a momentary setback. It had been a browncoat rout. Only Michael Weiss vowed to fight on.
“I’m fighting on principle,” Michael told me, “but most of my investors are just fighting for a better deal. They stand to lose everything.”
“So what do you think about throwing in with us?” I asked him optimistically. “People don’t want to steal. They hate spending their own money but they still want creators to be paid. Our plan fixes that problem. It makes everyone happy!”
Michael thought seriously about our offer for a few long moments. His head fell back and his eyes rolled up just enough for me to became prematurely optimistic. Then in a quiet but somber voice he said,
“I’d love to work with you guys… But you guys really don’t want to work with me. It would be like painting a target on your back. Trust me. You don’t need that aggravation.”
It was cripplingly disappointing yet I completely understood his sentiments. It immediately brought back memories of the darkness.
“Yes indeed,” I thought, “we’re all alike.”