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A tangled web of file sharing

RapidShare says a very small fraction of files on its servers violate copyright

(swissinfo.ch)

In a few short years, the traffic of one website headquartered in Switzerland has trumped much of the online establishment, outranking stalwarts eBay and Amazon.

Claiming two billion page views per day, Zug-based RapidShare specialises in the distribution of digital media and stakes its claim as the world's first user-friendly way to transfer big files over the internet.

The catch? Content and copyright.

A search on one of many unofficial sites that scour files posted to the world's 12th most visited website – in one case, using the term "Justin" – revealed music, videos, porno and other files, with unintelligible names.

But labelling the firm an enabler of piracy may not be as cut-and-dried as that particular search – or other queries, for artists like Madonna and U2 or for software by companies like Sony and Adobe – would make it appear, it says.

"People often prematurely conclude from the links published on the web that there is pirated copyrighted material on RapidShare servers only," the company's chief operating officer, Bobby Chang, told swissinfo by email.

"But of course the links to the majority of the files on our systems are never published, because most of it is confidential private material."

The company says most of its traffic comes from people who use it to transfer files too large to be sent via email.

Near the end of October it released a statement defending its approach to privacy after Austria's national broadcaster posted what RapidShare called an erroneous story on one of its websites regarding the company's legal issues in Germany.

RapidShare, which employs around 30 people at its only office in the picturesque town of Cham in central Switzerland, insists that data privacy comes first and that while it will weed out protected content, it will not filter uploads.

"We will not spy"

"The security of personal data is very important to us, especially in these times," it said in a news release.

"That's the reason why we will not spy out the files that our clients faithfully upload onto RapidShare, not now nor in future."

"Of course there is this privacy aspect and they should care about that," said Emanuel Meyer of Switzerland's Federal Intellectual Property Institute.

"But I don't really believe this is a valid point because you could still scan the server for infringing material or take it down if you get notice that there is infringing material on the server."

For its part, RapidShare says it does "a lot" to reduce piracy but that with 40 million daily users and 4.5 petabytes (that's 1,000,000 gigabytes) of data, it is a challenge.

"This is not an easy task, either legally nor technically, because the internet is international," Chang wrote.

In most jurisdictions, it is the copyright holders that are responsible for monitoring the internet's digital treasure trove and notifying hosting companies like RapidShare whether files have been posted without their permission.

Meyer says rights owners are playing a game of perpetual catch-up reporting and re-reporting every time protected content is posted to a website.

Urs Gasser, a professor at St Gallen University and an expert on intellectual property and the internet, says copyright holders have three different options, some more realistic than others.

"First, you go against the primary infringer, which is the downloader or the uploader depending on the jurisdiction," he said. "Strategy number two is to go after the hosting providers or the peer-to-peer providers. The third option is that you try to go after the internet service providers."

"With uploading, you could be liable all over the world but with downloading it's more likely that you will be liable in the country you are in if in that country it's considered a copyright infringement," Meyer said.

Evolution of sharing

In North America, industry associations have targeted individual downloaders – some with substantial lawsuits – but in Switzerland, downloading is not considered copyright infringement; only uploading is.

That people use RapidShare's servers to illegally disseminate data bucks a trend of decentralisation characterising peer-to-peer service Napster in the late 1990s and by the file transfer protocol BitTorrent.

"The RapidShare model is a different one where there are centralised servers," Gasser said, adding that he uses similar services to exchange large files. "There seems to be the assumption that this is only used for illegal purposes but I wouldn't be so sure about that."

In the face of few or no effective mechanisms to deter or prevent piracy, Gasser believes society will soon be ready to reconsider what copyright means and how to conceptualise it.

"The difficulty is that you would have laws against speeding on the streets and you would know that a certain percentage of the population, despite these laws, would drive faster," he said.

"You could argue at what point, if a certain number of people are doing it again and again, you need to increase the speed limit."

People are taught at an early age that sharing is a virtue, he added. So why not music?

"It seems to me that there is a change in perception; there are very strong social norms that have changed."

swissinfo, Justin Häne

RapidShare

RapidShare claims around 40 million users and two billion page views per day.

It says 60 million files have been uploaded to its servers.

It allows users to upload files up to 200 megabytes on its rapidshare.com website and up to 300 megabytes on its rapidshare.de website.

Non-paying users wait between 30 and 134 seconds to download a file.

Premium users, the company's source of revenue, have access to faster download speeds and can download 80 gigabytes per month.

RapidShare does not disclose its earnings, the location of its servers nor the identity of its investors.

The company says it is difficult to say how many of these it removes due to copyright infringement but that it is talking to content owners about privacy.

Its offices in the town of Cham in canton Zug are home to over 30 employees.

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File sharing

The peer-to-peer service Napster was popular in the late 1990s, allowing users to illegally distribute files.

It was shut down in 2001, and services like eDonkey and Limewire took over.

The Napster brand was sold off and re-launched as a free music service.

BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer protocol launched in 2001, allows users to download a file from many different other users.

It randomly downloads small bits of information and reassembles them.

New models for compensating copyright holders would place a digital watermark on all media files and would track them as they move throughout the internet.

People who buy devices that play media would pay a fee into a pool, which would be divided up based on how often a file changed hands.

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