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Corporate Behemoth Keeps Ripping "Real" 121

Slashdot contributor Bennett Haselton has written in with a tale of media rippers and corporate giants "In 2001 RealNetworks sued and blocked Streambox from distributing the Ripper, a program that let users rip and save RealAudio and RealVideo streams even if the stream contained a proprietary "do not copy" flag. Then one year ago this month, RealNetworks caused a stir by releasing a beta of RealPlayer 11 that similarly let the user record and save streams from sites like YouTube and Pandora. YouTube rippers and the like had existed before, but this was the first time a major company had included a stream ripper in its media player. And while RealPlayer 11 didn't explicitly ignore any copy protection flags, the release still provoked legal rumblings: in a Variety article by Scott Kirsner, an anonymous network exec said accused RealNetworks of 'aiding and abetting piracy' and said that they would 'more likely than not' take action against RealNetworks. But now that the feature has stayed in RealPlayer for a year, its real impact will be not on piracy but on the perceived legitimacy of ripping programs. The corporate behemoth, raked over the coals in the past for privacy violations and nuisance-ware, strikes a blow for free-culture hackers." The rest of Bennett's essay is available by following that magical link right below these words.

First, the reasons I don't think that RealPlayer has much effect on actual piracy. Yes, if a pirate has uploaded your favorite song to YouTube, you can save a copy of the video file to hear the song over and over, but you can do the same thing on YouTube itself as long as you're connected to the Internet. The anonymous network exec in the Variety article points out that RealPlayer "allows you to own [content] forever on your hard drive, even if the Web site that distributed that content illegally has taken it down in because we've complained." But regardless of what complaints they've been sending, almost all popular songs are currently available for listening on YouTube so that anyone with a Net connection can get them on demand, and that's a separate issue, with or without RealPlayer.

So then it becomes a question of whether RealPlayer enables the user to do more interesting things with the song or video, like take it with them on an iPod. RealPlayer only lets you save YouTube videos as an FLV file. But as long as doing things like playing an FLV file on an iPod requires an outside hack, that option is only available to people who are resourceful enough to go out and find tools like that (admittedly not a very high bar, but too hard for many people). So, suppose you define a "resourceful" person as someone smart enough to figure out how to convert an FLV file into an iPod-viewable format. Then there are two possibilities: (a) either a person is not that "resourceful", in which case if they want content to take with them, they'll still have to get it through legitimate channels like the iTunes store, or (b) if the person is "resourceful", they would have known about tools for ripping YouTube videos to MP3, long before RealPlayer 11 came out (in fact, most sites that come up in a search for "flv to mp3 converter" are just rippers specifically for YouTube). In either case, RealPlayer's ability to save FLV files has no impact on the market for the song.

I haven't talked about some outlier cases where RealPlayer could perhaps help a novice user avoid paying for content (if a novice pirate didn't know enough to download a movie from a BitTorrent network, they could perhaps save up enough interesting videos from YouTube for a long plane ride where they won't have Internet access). But there's an easy way to get a verdict on RealPlayer's impact on piracy: How much have you heard teenagers talking about it? You heard teens through the years buzzing about Napster, KaZaA, and BitTorrent, but... RealPlayer? The cliche among teenagers today is to go "find something on YouTube", but "and then grab it with RealPlayer" has yet to prove useful enough to enter the vernacular.

Similarly, RealPlayer can be used to rip streams from Pandora, but it's just hard enough to do it that most people are likely to give up. Before going into details, I should say that I'm against anyone trying to circumvent paying for music. Most of the time when you read that on the Web, it carries this nudge-wink subtext right before the author launches into a detailed description about how, exactly, to circumvent paying for music. But I really do believe that there is a vast untapped potential of unwritten good music out there, and that it could be tapped if there were only lower barriers of entry for musicians, better channels to distribute music to users, and a guarantee that users would pay instead of stealing it -- all of which is helped by services like Pandora. On the other hand, I also believe that if a copying scheme can be circumvented, and especially if it can be circumvented in a way that's fairly easy to discover, there's no point in keeping it secret: We might as well push things forward by acknowledging that the scheme is beatable, and deciding what to do about it.

The outing commences: if you save a stream from Pandora, RealPlayer will give you an error if you try to play the stream back from your RealPlayer library. But if you find the "mp4" file in your RealPlayer downloads, you can play it in WinAmp. However, the file as saved will not play in Windows Media Player, iTunes, or RealPlayer itself. Plus, since Pandora does not let you pick which song you want to listen to on demand, your stream might contain all the songs that you had to skip past to get the one you wanted, and you'd have to find a utility to edit the mp4 file to get rid of that cruft at the beginnig. At some point, the effort probably exceeds the dollar you'd have to pay to get the song on iTunes (or, if you're a pirate, the effort to find it on a p2p network).

Again, the "teenager buzz test" is instructive. You do hear kids these days talking about listening to songs on Pandora, but not about ripping them with RealPlayer.

Where I think RealPlayer will make the most difference in the long run is in its political and legal impact, by legitimizing stream-ripping as something that "real" companies, so to speak, are allowed to do. In 2006, Google sent a cease-and-desist letter to TechCrunch for hosting a tool that lets users save YouTube videos to their hard drives. Michael Arrington of TechCrunch blogged at the time, "I am likely to remove the tool to preserve my relationship with the company [Google/YouTube]", but the tool is still up, and I don't know whether it was ever taken down at all (TechCrunch did not respond to an inquiry). Today, there are more YouTube rippers than ever, several of them even running AdSense ads. (I'm not sure if that's within Google's rules, but I mentioned those sites while e-mailing back and forth with Google for this article, and they're all still running AdSense ads a week later.) Certainly Google would look pretty silly trying to force TechCrunch to take their ripper down today, now that Google itself is distributing RealPlayer as part of the Google Pack.

RealNetworks could argue that the main difference between RealPlayer 11, and the Streambox Ripper that they sued to have outlawed in 2001, was that the Streambox Ripper ignored the "do not copy" flag present in some RealAudio and RealVideo streams, and thus violated the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. RealNetworks says the do-not-copy flag is no longer used, having been supplanted by more sophisticated Digital Rights Management, and RealPlayer 11 will honor any DRM-protected streams and refuse to save them. But how much difference is there between "ignoring" the do-not-copy flag and "ignoring" the Terms of Service for sites like YouTube (which the program may not be aware of, but which its makers certainly are)?

We've all heard about the First Amendment implications of DeCSS code, the code for decrypting the copy-protection scheme on DVDs, being outlawed in the U.S. But the Streambox case set the bar for "violating the DMCA" considerably lower -- the Streambox Ripper didn't actively decrypt anything, it just ignored a flag set in the streaming media. What are the implications if "ignoring" a flag counts as "breaking" copy protection? Suppose Behemoth Corp releases Version 1 of some media format, and I release a third-party player that plays Version 1. Then Behemoth Corp releases the specs for Version 2 of the format, which is similar enough that it works in Version 1 players, except Version 2 now contains a "do-not-copy" flag, which my player doesn't know about. Is my player now illegal? (Well, in this case Behemoth Corp would just make sure that Version 2 doesn't play in Version 1 players. But what about general-purpose programs like Total Recorder that can record any sound playing through your computer to an MP3 file? Does that program become illegal if a company releases a new sound file format that they don't want to be copyable?) So I think the acceptance of RealPlayer has nudged us closer to legal acceptance of software that can interact with third-party sites and programs in a way that their makers don't like. That's good. It should not be against the law to make a program that interacts with third-party web sites in a way that they haven't given permission for, something I literally grew up saying.

It's brave of Google especially to be distributing RealPlayer along with the Google Pack, at the same time that YouTube is constantly attacked for enabling copyright violations. A content owner mounting a lawsuit against Google, would be foolish not to say something like, "Your Honor, not only does YouTube host thousands of videos violating the intellectual property rights of my clients, they even distribute a tool called RealPlayer that lets people violate YouTube's own Terms of Service by saving the videos to their hard drive!" Logically, of course, it's a weak argument -- RealPlayer is universally available whether Google distributes it or not -- but rhetorically the argument is golden.

On the other hand, since that hasn't happened, and RealPlayer 11 is pretty well entrenched after being out for a year, the result has probably been an expansion of our rights. Anyone else who got sued or threatened for releasing a ripping program would be able to point to RealNetworks. "Look at them, Your Honor, their Web site even tells people, 'Grab videos from thousands of Web sites with just one click', something that those 'thousands of Web sites' would probably not be thrilled with. If it's legal for RealNetworks to tell people that, how can it be illegal for me just to have a ripping program on my site?"

If a small-time programmer had made themselves a legal test case before RealPlayer 11 came out, things might have gone differently; it is an unfortunate truth that courts are probably more likely to consider something legal when it is done by a large and legitimate-looking company like RealNetworks. Big companies do well in court partly because their lawyers are paid to make good arguments, but they almost certainly also get more benefit of the doubt just by virtue of being big companies. I think the time is long overdue for using controlled experiments to measure the bias and objectivity of judges -- for example, having different actors, one white and one black, go into different courtrooms for "mock trials" (which the judges think are real), where both actors are standing trial for exactly identical crimes and their lawyers say exactly identical things, and repeat this experiment enough times to see how differently black and white defendants are treated. (We already see this, for example, in the disparity of sentences for powder cocaine vs. crack, but skeptics may have a point when they say that's not a controlled experiment, because the effects of crack and cocaine are different.) Similarly, have mock trials where a small-time "activist" and a large company are sued for doing exactly the same thing. I would bet that the disparity in the outcomes of those cases would far exceed any bias due to race or gender.

But since it was RealNetworks, with their lawyers and their NASDAQ listing and their former exec in the U.S. Senate, that brought ripping to the masses, that probably makes it OK for you and me. It's not fair, but in this case, it's a good thing.

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Corporate Behemoth Keeps Ripping "Real"

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"The eleventh commandment was `Thou Shalt Compute' or `Thou Shalt Not Compute' -- I forget which." -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982