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It’s not nice to share

Microsoft’s ban on peer-to-peer file swapping could lead to a big chill.

I’m lucky enough to work for a company that, by and large, recognizes its employees as responsible adults when it comes to computer use; in fact, when the company was establishing a presence on the Internet several years ago, it virtually gave us a mandate to goof off on the Web and become familiar with what this exploding medium had to offer. And as far as I know, prying corporate eyes keep their distance from what I see and type on my Mac.

Other companies, slowly but surely, are tightening the screws, and not just for the usual reasons of avoiding viruses and maintaining productivity. The latest clampdown is due to that distinctly modern phobia, the fear of liability.

Late in July, Microsoft warned its employees that no swapping of music or other files was to take place via its PCs or networks. In an e-mail sent to the company’s more than 50,000 employees, senior Microsoft executives warned workers that peer-to-peer (P2P) networks used for sharing files raise “significant legal, public policy, and security concerns.”

As is often the case, Microsoft has its finger to the wind and knows exactly what it’s doing. It distributed the e-mail the same day that the House of Representatives introduced a bill that would allow copyright owners to legally hack into peer-to-peer networks. This, in turn, came a week after Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, wrote to Hollywood studio heads expressing the company’s willingness to cooperate in the crackdown on piracy through file swapping.

In defending the edict, Microsoft executives are talking a big game about “respecting and protecting IP (intellectual property) rights is particularly relevant now, in light of discussions in Congress the past few months regarding IP protection.” But let’s face it: They’re afraid of getting sued. And if the Record Industry Association of America’s bluster has run a chill through Microsoft, what smaller company isn’t going to follow suit by banning peer-to-peer activity?

Once again, the RIAA has its digital assets in lockbox, with no intention of opening it without compensation. And once again, it’s easy to find an example of a system that runs counter to RIAA philosophy and still manages to make everyone happy. Think of just about any Web site associated with a magazine or newspaper. When you read an article online from one of these publications, it almost always has a link that says, “E-mail this story to a friend.” Newspaper and magazine articles are no less subject to copyright protection than digital music files. And yet, the owners of their copyright not only don’t persecute sharing of their material, they encourage and facilitate it.

I know the analogy isn’t airtight; nobody’s swapping pirated copies of Maureen Dowd’s latest column. But the principle is the same. Whether in the form of words or music, encouraging sharing of copyrighted material has the net effect of getting consumers interested and excited about similar material–material that they’ll gladly pay for.

It’s discouraging that Microsoft is knuckling under like this, but not surprising. What would be surprising is if the precedent it’s setting makes much of a dent in at-work file sharing. If the companies I’m familiar with are typical, most IT staff already has its hands full keeping their systems going without babysitting an office full of potential MP3 swappers.

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