(4 of 4)
So far, the interested parties include the makers of an indie film called Four Eyed Monsters and the creators of an independent TV show called Pioneer One, which to date consists of one episode, though there are a couple more on the way. It's frustrating: Cohen is sitting on a fire hose, the kind of runaway technological success story that coders dream of, and the big players don't want to play.
Why does he bother? As a coding legend, Cohen could easily find employment at a big corporation. But that's not his style. "I need a certain amount of freedom," he says. He's now working on something wholly new: a peer-to-peer system designed for streaming real-time data instead of discrete files. It's a project that could have enormous potential as a way to distribute live media, like news or sports, over the Net. He still maintains BitTorrent, but it doesn't take up that much of his time. "I kind of got it right when I first made it," he says.
The Easy Way Out
So what ever happened to the pirate apocalypse of yesteryear? In the U.S., piracy hasn't turned out to be quite as bad for content producers as everybody thought. A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office released last April labored mightily to establish a strong link between piracy and lost sales, but the results were inconclusive.
What's striking about the pirate kings is that they've been much less successful in the straight world than they were as pirates. An anarchic worldview coupled with brilliant code doesn't travel as well as you'd think in the bean-counting world of legitimate commerce. Good code empowers users by giving them choices and options, but empowered users aren't necessarily good for business. What you need to hit it really big in legitimate commerce is an authoritarian sensibility that limits users to doing what you want them to.
Which brings us to another important reason the media apocalypse never happened: Steve Jobs. On April 28, 2003, the very day TIME published a grand excursus on the explosive growth of file sharing, Apple unveiled the iTunes Music Store. At the time, it was difficult to see why iTunes would succeed where Snocap, among many others, had failed. Because, again, how do you compete with free?
But iTunes did succeed. Apple's relentless emphasis on simple, attractive user interfaces, backed by Jobs' steely negotiating power in dealing with music studios, produced a streamlined, curated service with which you could download and transfer music with a minimum of fuss. And we did even though it cost us money and our purchases were bogged down with DRM that constrained what we could do with them.
It turns out that there is something that can compete with free: easy. Napster, Gnutella and BitTorrent never attained the user-friendliness that Apple products have, and nobody vets the content on file-sharing networks, so while the number of files on offer is enormous, the files are rotten with ads, porn, spyware and other garbage. When Jobs offered us the easy way out, we took it. Freedom is overrated, apparently at least where digital media are concerned.
It's a lesson that the youngest of the pirate kings has studied very carefully. Like Fanning, Frankel and Cohen, Jon Lech Johansen was never really a pirate at all. He didn't help crack the encryption on DVDs because he wanted to crush Hollywood. He did it because he wanted to watch movies on his computer. His computer ran the Linux operating system, and in 1999 there was no DVD-playing program for Linux. So he and his partners decided to make one, and to do that, they had to figure out how to decrypt DVDs.
When the Motion Picture Association of America found out, it complained about Johansen to the Norwegian government, which duly arrested him. He stood trial in Oslo not once but twice on hacking charges. He was acquitted both times. It turns out it's not against the law to decrypt a DVD that you bought and paid for.
But Johansen was genuinely interested in preserving what he sees as the right of consumers to do whatever they want with the digital media they buy, the same way we do with, for example, a physical book use it repeatedly or lend it out as we choose. In 2005, Johansen moved to California, where he reverse engineered FairPlay, the DRM software Apple was using to protect its media files. By then he'd noticed how attractive the Apple user experience was, and he thought it should be possible to bring that to the wider, more chaotic world of non-Apple products. "We saw there were a lot of devices out there, and none of them worked as well as they should," says Johansen, who at the ripe age of 26 is as good a pitchman as he is a coder. "So we set out to build a system that will allow these devices to interoperate and provide consumers with a great media experience."
By "we," Johansen means his company, doubleTwist, which he co-founded in 2007. The doubleTwist software, which is free, is a kind of Rosetta stone for digital-media files: it can translate, reconcile and organize files from about 500 different devices and bring them together into one elegant interface. In June, doubleTwist introduced an Android app, and some 500,000 people have since downloaded it. Last year, doubleTwist scored a piratical coup by taking out an ad that read: "The Cure for iPhone Envy. Your iTunes library on any device. In seconds." It ran on the side of the building that houses San Francisco's flagship Apple store.
Johansen rejects any attempt to associate him with piracy. "As far as I'm concerned, it has nothing to do with me," he says. "I support fair use, which means that when you actually legally acquire content, you should have the right to use that content on any of your devices, using any application." For Johansen as for all of the pirate kings, it was always about writing good code, and what good code does is give power to the people who use it. That's the real reason the pirate apocalypse never happened. The pirates never wanted music and movies and all the rest of it to be free at least, not in the financial sense. They wanted it to be free as in freedom.