Posted Monday, May 19, 2003

iTunes Sharing Portals Attempt to Thwart Pirates

Music is harder to steal if you can't find out where it is. That's apparently the thinking behind some changes I've noticed at two iTunes sharing portals, ShareiTunes and iTuneShare.

Last week, I wrote about how it's possible to use these sites together with free utilities to download -- that is, steal -- music from other users' shared iTunes libraries. The process was simple: use the site to find the address of a shared iTunes library, then paste that address into a program such as iTunesDL.

It isn't quite so easy anymore.

I learned this when I received an email from a reader: "I read your article and how you went to ShareiTunes and then Control-clicked to copy the URL address to paste into iTunesDL. For the life of me, I cannot get my iMac to get the URL address."

Curious, I returned to ShareiTunes to try the technique. And indeed, it no longer works. ShareiTunes and iTuneShare are now "cloaking" the address of shared iTunes libraries: they hide it in a way that prevents would-be music pirates from easily copying the address into the likes of iTunesDL.

And I'm betting the reason has something to do with a lawyer.

Here's the deal. The recording industry can't go after all those iTunes users who have shared their music libraries. After all, the sharing feature is intended for music streaming, not downloading.

However, the industry could conceivably pursue sites that publish lists of shared libraries -- sites like ShareiTunes and iTuneShare. But even this seems to be a stretch. These sharing portals aren't advocating piracy -- they're simply pointing to people who are using a built-in feature of iTunes.

So it's a stretch, but when it comes to stretching, a lawyer can be more limber than a gymnast. You don't have to have a valid legal argument to bully a small site into shutting down.

And so, cloaking.

Of course, no protection is perfect. It took me about 37 seconds to circumvent the URL cloaking and find the addresses of shared libraries. I won't describe the steps here because, apart from stealing music, there's no reason you'd want to do this. But it is possible, and it isn't hard.

Even if iTunes sharing portals were to vanish tomorrow, the theft-via-iTunes genie is out of the bottle. Music thieves will always be able to share URLs via chat rooms and other mechanisms. So what's the recording industry's best weapon against piracy? It already exists. It's called the iTunes Music Store.