Interesting article: “The Pirates Can’t Be Stopped”

The folks at Portfolio.com have an interesting article on the ongoing war between media companies and the legions of file sharers. It focuses on how Media Defenders, a company that promises Hollywood that they’ll disrupt file sharing on P2P networks, was hacked by a long high school kid who exposed the company’s inner workings for all to see:

A teenager hacked into the outfit charged with protecting companies like Sony, Universal, and Activision from online piracy—the most daring exploit yet in the escalating war between fans and corporate giants. Guess which side is winning.

The first time Ethan broke into MediaDefender, he had no idea what he had found. It was his Christmas break, and the high schooler was hunkered down in the basement office of his family’s suburban home. The place was, as usual, a mess. Papers and electrical cords covered the floor and crowded the desk near his father’s Macs and his own five-year-old Hewlett-Packard desktop. While his family slept, Ethan would take over the office, and soon enough he’d start taking over the computer networks of companies around the world. Exploiting a weakness in MediaDefender’s firewall, he started poking around on the company’s servers. He found folder after folder labeled with the names of some of the largest media companies on the planet: News Corp., Time Warner, Universal.

[…] Ethan and I had first started talking over an untraceable prepaid phone that he carried with him. He eventually agrees to speak in person, as long as I protect his identity. (Ethan is a pseudonym.) We meet after school, in a bookstore that he says is near his house. He hands me a flash drive containing documents that I was later able to independently verify as internal, unpublished information belonging to MediaDefender. He also pulls out a well-creased sheet of paper bearing my name, the first five digits of my Social Security number, a few pictures of me, and addresses going back 10 years. “I had to check,” he says. Then he asks me about another Roth he has been researching; it turns out to be my brother. “I was just starting to dig in to him,” he says. “There’s a lot there.” Ethan is a handsome kid, with broad shoulders and a preppy style, and is unfailingly polite, cleaning up the table after I buy him a coffee and patiently walking me through the intricate details of Microsoft security procedures.

[…] In the spring, however, he decided to explore the company again. Over the next few months, Ethan says, he figured out how to read MediaDefender’s email, listen to its phone calls, and access just about any of the company’s computers he wanted to browse. He uncovered the salaries of the top engineers as well as names and contact information kept by C.E.O. and co-founder Randy Saaf (with notations of who in the videogame industry is an “asshole” and which venture capitalists didn’t come through with financing). Ethan also figured out how the firm’s pirate-fighting software works. He passed on his expertise to a fellow hacker, who broke into one of MediaDefender’s servers and commandeered it so that it could be used for denial-of-service attacks.

The kid has a future in IT Security if he doesn’t end up getting busted for some of the hacking he’s done in the past. This was all done by a single high school kid in his spare time over the course of months and he’s only one of hundreds, if not thousands, of pirates who are fighting an arms race against the companies who would be Hollywood’s gate keepers. Reading the full seven page article it quickly becomes clear that the pirates are winning and the best hope that the entertainment industry has is to change its business models to accommodate what people really want, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon. The most telling example of this conflict comes from an account in the article about a small indie film that benefited greatly from being pirated:

A new independent movie called Jerome Bixby’s The Man From Earth showed up on one of the file-sharing sites in November. The film’s producers had no idea it had even been pirated; all they knew was that suddenly its popularity was skyrocketing. Their websites received 23,000 hits in less than two weeks, and the film’s ranking among the most-searched-for movies on the internet movie-tracking site IMDB went from 11,235 to 15. Eric Wilkinson, the film’s co-producer, wrote a fan letter to the site responsible for driving traffic to the pirated film: “Our independent movie had next to no advertising budget and very little going for it until somebody ripped one of the DVD screeners and put the movie online for all to download…. People like our movie and are talking about it, all thanks to piracy on the Net!” He requested that fans buy the DVD as well and added, “In the future, I will not complain about file sharing. you have helped put this little movie on the map!!!! When I make my next picture, I just may upload the movie on the Net myself!”

When I try reaching Wilkinson, though, I’m told that the producer is not available. Instead, the movie’s director, Richard Schenkman, returns the call. “Eric was clearly being sarcastic,” Schenkman says about the offer to upload the film. “That’s why he put in the exclamation points.” I tell him his partner certainly sounded enthusiastic about file sharing. “Look, I have mixed feelings about this,” Schenkman replies. “As a filmmaker, I love that people love the movie and have seen the movie. But as a person who literally has a hunk of his own life savings in the movie, I don’t want to be ripped off by people illegally downloading the movie. Some of these downloaders want to believe they’re fighting the man. But we’re all just people who work for a living.” He acknowledges, however, that DVD sales of the film increased after the leak, and that people have even been pledging money on a site the filmmaker set up to accept donations in markets where the DVD isn’t for sale. “I’m not saying I have the answers,” Schenkman says.

If anyone had the answers the problem would already be solved. What the industry needs to do is more experimentation to see what works, but they’d rather just sure their customers thinking that it’ll scare everyone else straight. A tactic that clearly doesn’t work as file sharing has grown in leaps and bounds year after year in spite of all the lawsuits.