A wave of controversy surrounds all forms of entertainment on the Internet for both legitimate and insignificant reasons. So, before we get into the “how to” parts of the lesson, we should go through some of the more important reasons for the controversy.

COPYRIGHT LAW

Much of the entertainment transferred over the Internet is indeed in violation of copyright law. This situation leaves open two solutions: either enforce the law vigorously; or question the laws, either by removing or modifying them. A third “solution,” involves hiding your head in the sand.) When questioning whether entertainment found on the Internet should be policed by government agents, several important issues come up. The first is that there is a great distinction between how hard goods and knowledge need to be protected. Here are two transactions to illustrate:

  1. You have a car that I want badly, so you sell it to me. I give you money, and take the car. The car changes hands. Now I can do whatever I want with it, and you no longer own it.

  2. You have a recipe for a great dessert dish. I want it and you agree to sell it to me. I give you money, and you write down the recipe for me. Now I can do whatever I want with the recipe, but you still possess the recipe as well.

Protecting hard goods such as cars or appliances is a much more straightforward proposition than protecting knowledge.

Basic U.S. laws on copyright protection were put in place a long time ago, and assumed certain types of situations and modes of exchange. The Internet has changed those methods of exchange. Like it or not, many tens of millions of people exchange music, and it is very hard to stop them — perhaps impossible. One of the oldest and most basic tests of good law is — believe it or not — “can we get people to keep this law?” But apparently that law does not apply in this case.

One way or the other, sharing files on the Internet has changed the status of entertainment programming from something akin to hard goods, to something more like intellectual property. As mentioned earlier, it is questionable whether anyone (including the U.S. government) will be able to stop this. It is one thing to order Napster to shut down; it is quite another to shut down Gnutella — there is nothing to seize, and no one to hold accountable.

Fraud, bad guys and danger

This is the one that gets played up in the news and is mostly opportunistic attempts at stirring up hysteria. (The New York Times was on a virtual campaign against the Internet a few years ago.) The Internet is new, and it is certainly changing a lot of the status quo. These things make it ripe for creating hysteria.

The reality of this, however, is quite different. Sure there are a few frauds committed over the Net, and a few bad guys using it for bad things. But how much fraud goes on through the telephone or mail systems? How many bad guys use telephones? The Internet is simply a communication tool, and it is neutral to the content passing through it. The changes it brings will be good for more people than it will be bad for. Progress does not allow for shutting down anything with a possible adverse effect — otherwise we would still be outlawing automobiles to prevent damage to the horse-and-buggy industry.

The entertainment industry

If all of the above is true, what becomes of the entertainment industries? First of all, entertainment will not go away. People value good music, movies and television, and are willing to pay for it. But beyond that, lots of things can change.

Musicians will probably focus their attention more on concerts and less on album sales. They will probably also remove most of the record companies from the process. More good musicians will have steady work, not just the very few with good contacts.

Television will probably change drastically, as more and more people share programming, and remove the commercials. Eventually video stores will start closing, as sharing videos online is free and will offer a better selection. Movies are not likely to suffer much.

LIMEWIRE or GNUTELLA

Limewire

Limewire (like Napster) is a file-sharing service. To use it, you must install the program, join and agree to keep the rules. After that, you can trade music at will.

Limewire checks your hard drive for MP3s to share. In this case, “share” means allowing other Limewire users to download. When you are online, you can log in to Limewire, find songs you like, and allow other users to share your files. (There have been very few cases of people breaching security.)

Limewire works quickly and easily if you have a broadband connection. If you must use dial-up, downloading is very slow.

Listening to MP3 digital audio files is handled easily through a computer. If you want to listen to them with a Walkman, you need the kind that is designed to play them. If you have a CD burner (about $100) and the associated software (often free with the burner), you can make your own custom CDs and play them through any standard stereo system.

Gnutella

Gnutella began life as a little side project by a couple of the guys over at Nullsoft, an AOL-owned company. Mere hours after the program's first release, the Gnutella site was taken down and development was halted. Word on the street is that AOL didn't want to be associated with anything that could be confused as being even remotely Napster-like, so it pulled the plug on the project. But thanks to a dedicated group of programmers, the Gnutella protocol was quickly reverse-engineered, and a bevy of Gnutella clones are now available. Mysteriously, the official Gnutella program is still being maintained, though the people behind the recent releases are remaining well out of the spotlight. You can get a copy of Gnutella from ZDNet Music, or from many other places. (There are many versions available at http://gnutella.wego.com/).

Gnutella doesn't use servers like Napster. You connect to one person on the network, and that connects you not only to him, but to everyone he is connected to. When you search, the program will do a search throughout the network starting with that one person you are connected to. In other words, you connect to another person, and Gnutella follows the chain, connecting you with all the people the first user is connected to, then all the people they are connected to, and so on — usually six layers deep. Gnutella searches all of those computers for what you want, and sends it back to you for approval and then downloading. Gnutella is a peer-to-peer network. Each person on the network is considered a hub. Everybody on the network is a client and a server.

Keep in mind that since Gnutella is used for much more than just MP3 files, there's a good chance that the search monitor will be chock-full of dirty words. So, if you're sensitive to such things, you may wish to reconsider, or at least turn the monitor off when you are not using it.

Too many connections will consume all your available bandwidth (each one uses 500-1,000 bytes/second), but this is really only a significant problem for dial-up users. Aside from its decentralized nature, Gnutella operates very similarly to Napster, and the MP3 files are exactly the same.

RESIDENTIAL GATEWAYS

One of the hot sales words in broadband is “residential gateway” (or “RG”). The generic definition of a residential gateway is “a network interface device that provides means to access a service delivered to the home, such as telephony, cable TV and Internet service.

While some people use RG as just another term for devices such as set-top boxes and modems, others say that the term refers to an entirely new concept: a whole-house, intelligent network-interface device that has yet to be developed.

This RG is believed to have the following two key functions:

  • As the physical interface terminating all external access networks to the home as well as the termination point of internal home networks.

  • As the enabling platform for residential services to be delivered to the consumer, including both existing services and new ones yet to come.

Essentially, the RG promoters envision the RG as a “single, intelligent, standardized and flexible network interface unit that receives communication signals from various external networks and delivers the signals to specific consumer devices through in-home networks.”

By introducing the RG concept, the RG Group hopes to provide an effective approach to integrate previously separate external networks and enable a wealth of new applications.

The RG promoters argue that a single, centralized, intelligent and standardized residential gateway will provide multiple advantages to all stakeholders, including consumers, service providers and manufacturers. But complex issues must still be resolved before such a gateway can be developed and deployed in the mass market.

Many manufacturers have products that are effectively fancier versions of cable modems or DSL units. Keep your eye on the features these come out with, but don't believe everything you read.

E-mail your home networking news to afischbach@primediabusiness.com.