YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

The Piracy Arms Race

A major part of the online battle has been fought in two Manhattan offices, where file-sharing site eDonkey fends off attacks from Overpeer's cyber army.

October 02, 2005|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

Although Val Thomas and Jed McCaleb have never met, their careers have been locked in a hostile embrace for much of the last two years.

From his office in Midtown Manhattan, Thomas commands a virtual army of more than 4 million simulated humans that fed a steady diet of fake songs, films and other digital goods to unsuspecting downloaders. One of his prime targets has been the eDonkey file-sharing network, a hotbed of online piracy.

Just a few miles away in Lower Manhattan, Jed McCaleb and his colleagues at MetaMachine Inc. defended eDonkey against attack, making it a more efficient and reliable file-sharing tool. In effect, they created markets that were hard for Thomas' cyber army to overrun.

Thomas and McCaleb have been central figures in a race pitting far-flung crews of youthful engineers against the multibillion-dollar entertainment and software industries. That tussle is an important part of the entertainment industry's crusade to convince people that digitized movies and music have value too and shouldn't be enjoyed free.

The outcome of that fight could transform the entertainment industry because "peer-to-peer" systems such as eDonkey enable perfect copies of songs and movies to be shared with millions of people around the world.

"This is unlike traditional analog piracy," said P.J. McNealy, an analyst at American Technology Research. "The scale is so much more massive. It's not like historical piracy levels, where it's a threat to 15% of their sales. It's more like a 75% to 99% threat."

Big money is at stake. Record labels say file sharing was partly to blame for a prolonged slide in CD sales, and studio executives have grown accustomed to finding their movies online soon after they open in theaters. Although users of file-sharing networks don't pay to swap music or movies, the companies that distribute the software can make millions by selling advertising on their programs.

The entertainment industry has been making inroads against file sharing in court. Most recently, the Supreme Court ruled in June that companies could be sued for copyright infringement if they encouraged people to bootleg.

That decision has prodded a growing number of companies in the file-sharing field, including eDonkey, to yield to the industry's threats of lawsuits. Last week, Sam Yagan, MetaMachine's chief executive, told a Senate committee that the company would change its software to stop users from downloading illegally.

But the industry's courtroom victories may not reduce online piracy. Instead, downloaders may simply switch to services that are harder for the industry to sue, just as they did after the pioneering Napster file-sharing service started filtering out pirated hits.

Hence the labels and studios' need to leaven their legal assault on file sharing with a technological one. And that's where Thomas comes in.

The beefy 42-year-old is chief technical officer of Overpeer Inc., a subsidiary of Loudeye Corp. that is paid by the entertainment industry to combat illegal downloading with an army of computerized drones. From an office overlooking the New York Public Library, Thomas unleashes millions of fake files into popular networks such as eDonkey, Kazaa and Gnutella every hour.

The fakes look real enough, but they're nothing but dead air or song fragments. Thomas aims to drain the fun out of file sharing by forcing users to wade through megabytes of junk before finding an honest-to-goodness pirated file -- if they ever do. It's like trying to find a needle in a virtual haystack.

"We are not attempting in any way, shape or form to shut down a peer-to-peer network," Thomas said. "What we try to do with our technology is prevent the copyrighted material from being distributed over those networks, and only the copyrighted material."

McCaleb, 30, is the lead programmer at MetaMachine, the company behind the immensely popular eDonkey file-sharing software. He and his programming team work on makeshift desks in a one-room office on West 21st Street, in a row of aging commercial buildings.

Fascinated by the power and potential of peer-to-peer technology, McCaleb and his crew designed their software to help users find and download what they're looking for, without tangling with bogus or broken files.

McCaleb wasn't motivated by a zeal for free goods, a grudge against Hollywood or a chip on his shoulder about copyright law. Instead, he was enchanted by the thought of uniting millions of people's computers into a giant, shared resource.

"Napster was just such an awesome idea," McCaleb said in an interview last year. When asked what made Napster so appealing, he said, "It wasn't free music at all. It was the fact that you were essentially summing up all these people's hard drives and making this massive, massive hard drive. That was cool."

Los Angeles Times Articles