When Internet users started ripping off songs from the online Museum of Musical Instruments, they angered the wrong guy: millionaire mathematician Hank Risan.
Risan's unorthodox museum is a Web site devoted to guitars and their role in music history, reflecting his personal interests as a collector, restorer and musician. The original version of the site boasted a virtual jukebox with thousands of songs from various musical eras and genres.
Then, early last year, the Recording Industry Assn. of America called to complain that Risan's site was letting users play songs on demand without the record labels' permission -- a no-no under copyright law. Worse, visitors could copy songs with just a few clicks of a computer mouse.
Risan, who had used his computing skills to make a fortune in the financial markets in the 1970s, was mortified.
So he fought back.
He unplugged the site's music and, dipping into his sizable bank account, put together a team of 16 software engineers in Santa Cruz. After more than a year of research and development, his venture -- called Music Public Broadcasting -- has developed a set of products that it says can give record companies, Hollywood studios and other copyright owners unprecedented protection against piracy.
Risan's conversion from guitar collector to software peddler illustrates something important about the battle over online piracy: It's a fluid technological arms race, with innovations coming from unexpected places on both sides of the fight. Just as entrepreneurs around the globe exploit piracy to build their businesses, so too do clever programmers try to profit by developing ways to protect copyrighted works.
Naturally, other anti-piracy companies are skeptical about Music Public Broadcasting's claims, and it remains to be seen whether any of its products will make a dent in the piracy that's rampant on the Internet. The company has just started trying to sell its wares, and it has yet to announce any customers.
Risan's museum is expected to show off one piece of the technology next month when it launches an online radio service featuring songs from 160 different genres and time periods. The music will be transmitted in a manner that Risan says will defy digital recording on today's computers, something that the leading vendors of anti-piracy software haven't been able to do for other services.
The company also has been demonstrating products designed to deter copying of CDs and DVDs, promote file sharing without piracy and beef up existing protections on the labels' downloadable songs.
Many executives at the major record and movie companies say that though they're eager to use the Internet to distribute their works, they're daunted by the risk of piracy. They have kept pressing technology suppliers such as Microsoft Corp., Macrovision Corp. and RealNetworks Inc. for tools that are not only more effective but also more flexible.
Music Public Broadcasting is trying to capitalize on that demand.
"I was shocked at how easy it was to strip [electronic locks] off of copyrighted material," Risan said. Although many people have told him that piracy can't be stopped with software alone, he said, "That, to me, [says] Aha! I have a new challenge in life."
As he tells it, Risan's personal history is replete with self-imposed challenges and you're-not-going-to-believe-this experiences.
Risan (pronounced rih-ZAHN) says his fascination with music began when he was a toddler, sitting under the piano bench at his San Fernando Valley home while his mother played classical music and jazz. At age 15 he became an apprentice to a guitar maker in Los Angeles, who taught him how to build and repair instruments, and by 17 he'd started rounding up vintage Martin six-strings.
He also was a mathematical prodigy, drawn in particular to topology -- a sophisticated approach to characterizing and understanding shapes in multi-dimensional space. This interest spilled over into biology in the mid-1970s while Risan was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, where he studied such things as the topology of hemoglobin.
"He was among the most brilliant students that I ever had as an undergraduate," said Leo Ortiz, chairman of the university's ecology and evolutionary biology department. "He never ran out of gas."
Risan learned to use mainframe computers to power his research in math and biology, which he continued while seeking doctorates simultaneously at Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. But a brief stint at the London School of Economics in the late 1970s prompted him to apply his computing skills in another arena: finding and capitalizing on patterns in financial markets.
Risan said he made and lost millions of dollars trading securities. He was 30 and comfortably in the black when he was severely injured while training for a bicycle race, which got him to slow down -- briefly -- and shift gears. He became a dealer in rare musical instruments, collecting, restoring and selling 19th and 20th century guitars.