Digital Culture Industry: A History of Digital Distribution
by James Allen-Robertson
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- Chapter Abstracts
- 1. Introduction
- 2. Writing a Digital History with Digital Documents
- 3. MP3.com & Napster: The Entrepreneurs of Risk
- 4. GNUtella: Decentralising the Masses
- 5. FastTrack: The Business of Piracy
- 6. BitTorrent: Revolution in the Network
- 7. Hacking the Market
- 8. New Media Gatekeepers
- 9. A History of Digital Distribution
Through detailed intricate histories of illicit Internet piracy networks, Digital Culture Industry goes beyond the Napster creation myth and illuminates the unseen individuals, conflict and code behind the turn to digital media distribution. By utilising the internet as an archive of digital documents, the author presents unique histories of sites such as MP3.com and The Pirate Bay, and illuminates the software, values and people behind networks such as GNUtella and BitTorrent. By examining topics such as hacker ideology, data rights management and the ownership of digital media, this book demonstrates how our relationship to media objects has been transformed by digital distribution. The book also examines the method behind the work and demonstrates how digital documents can be utilised for historical research. It argues for histories that account for detail, the unintended and the impact that code can have on the trajectory of social change.
‘This book not only examines a crucial cultural and political issue, it is also a clear demonstration of some of the methodological and technical issues that we now face in undertaking contemporary historical analysis. This is a book that should appeal to those interested in modern history as well as those interested in the sociology of new media. It is a compelling and informative read.’
Professor Roger Burrows, Goldsmiths, University of London, UK
‘This book represents a pivotal moment in the study of digital culture. The weaving together of various types of eclectic resources reveals the underlying stories of digital distribution. As a result this book provides the much needed historical context upon which the study of new media should be built and acts as an antidote to more reactionary or sensational commentaries of digital culture. Its focus though is not upon the familiar or established stories but upon the people, the devices, the organizations and the moments of chance that come together to shape the form that contemporary media take.’
Dr David Beer, University of York, UK
Chapter 1 – Introduction
This introductory chapter sets the scene of the book by opening with the trial of The Pirate Bay. The courtroom scene introduces the ideologies, conflict, technologies and rhetoric that are prevalent throughout the book. The chapter briefly introduces the idea of ‘The Culture Industry’ by Adorno and Horkheimer, and covers work by various theorists on the media industries. It finishes with a discussion of each upcoming chapter, demonstrating the historical, interwoven structure of the book, and the themes that each chapter will be addressing.
Chapter 2 – Writing a Digital History with Digital Documents
Chapter 2 looks at the way the histories of digital distribution were constructed, and offers insight into the methodological issues of utilizing digital documents in research. Beginning with an explanation of the idea of the ‘event biography’, the chapter shows how the structure of the book allows the presentation of complex histories that account for individual agency, design, law, social structure and politics. By mixing Structuration theory, Actor-Network theory and Science and Technology studies, the chapter provides the methodological and theoretical basis for the book. The chapter then goes on to describe how the research was accomplished practically, and discusses the methodological issues of using digital documents for social and historical research.
Chapter 3 – MP3.com & Napster: The Entrepreneurs of Risk
The histories of digital distribution begin with an examination of the website, MP3.com, and the first peer-to-peer file sharing service, Napster. The chapter focuses on the individuals behind the ventures, their innovations and legal tribulations. MP3.com shows us innovation well before its time, whilst the Napster story dispels the media myths of rebellion and genius, and instead presents collaborative programming communities, venture capital and a network of control. The chapter’s focus is on the uneasy early years of digital distribution: the experimentation and unforeseen consequences, and the friction between outsider innovation and traditional business models.
Chapter 4 – GNUtella: Decentralising the Masses
This chapter follows the development of the first truly decentralized, community driven peer-to-peer network, GNUtella. The history follows Justin Frankel, the anarchic programmer behind the network. The first half of the chapter lays out Frankel’s career as an independent programmer, his innovations in media software and the development of GNUtella. The chapter continues after Frankel’s exit from the story, with the communities that formed around GNUtella, and how it became decentralized from ownership or control. The theme of the chapter is to introduce the communities and values of hacker subcultures, the ways in which politics became imbued into software design, and how these designs ensured a robust almost indestructible network of information distribution.
Chapter 5 – FastTrack: The Business of Piracy
In the mid-2000s a series of products emerged hoping to turn a profit from peer-to-peer file sharing. The most prevalent of these products were Kazaa, Streamcast and Grokster, and they all shared a common network; FastTrack. The story of FastTrack is the story of business in the world of peer-to-peer piracy. The chapter follows the protocol’s development, licensing and eventual sale, culminating in the landmark case of MGM v. Grokster that rewrote intellectual property law in the U.S. It explores the legal ramifications of the network design, and considers the ways in which the case criminalized users rather than operators of peer-to-peer networks. The chapter ends with the eventual re-incorporation of FastTrack’s innovations into some of today’s most successful legitimate technologies.
Chapter 6 – BitTorrent: Revolution in the Network
BitTorrent remains the most robust and popular file-sharing protocol available today. This chapter’s story begins with Bram Cohen, and his very personal drive to produce the most efficient data transfer system in the world. The chapter follows BitTorrent’s development, Cohen’s uneasy foray into turning it into a business, and its eventual failure due to industry licensing demands. The final part of the chapter is the story of ‘The Pirate Bay’ charting the website’s history from its roots in the Swedish political art group Piratbyrån, to its role in the development of the first ‘Pirate Party’ and ‘Pirate Politics’. The chapter looks at the site as a hub for the politicization of piracy, and as a case study in the resilience of determined decentralized illicit communities.
Chapter 7 – Hacking the Market
This chapter presents two perspectives in the conflict of digital distribution: The perspective of the incumbent media industries, and the values and drive of programming communities. It begins with a look at the value that the compact disc had brought to the music industry and their reluctance to enter into the digital market. It presents an argument for the actions of the industry, but also demonstrates how their reluctance left them vulnerable to the capacities of the digital medium, and the communities that were skilled in its manipulation. These communities and their ‘Hacker Ethic’ placed those most interested in digital distribution in the perfect position to implement it, causing great disruption for the incumbent media industries by defining digital media without them.
Chapter 8 – New Media Gatekeepers
New Media Gatekeepers focuses on the shift in dominance from traditional media companies to new vendors of digital media. It begins with the story of iTunes, and how Apple saved the music industry through their understanding of the hacker ethic. It goes on to explore the tensions between selling and licensing media, and the difficulties of controlling digital content through data-rights-management. The chapter ends with a consideration of the affordances digital media has allowed for both consumers and media vendors. It argues that digital media cultivates long-term relationships between vendors and consumers, providing new forms of consumption whilst limiting individual ownership and further centralizing the media market.
Chapter 9 – A History of Digital Distribution
This final chapter summarizes the argument that our contemporary digital media markets have been shaped by the actions, innovations and ideologies of illicit hacker communities. It highlights the role of unintended consequences and conflict in the history of technological developments and uses the broad perspective to allow us to better understand the roots of digital distribution and its social impact. The book concludes by arguing that the case study can be used to demonstrate mechanisms of social and technological change. Drawing on Actor-Network theory and Structuration theory it argues for the development of grand narratives through historically and empirically grounded detailed social research.