Ian Clarkes new company, Uprizer, would love to sign up major entertainment companies as clients. So it might seem a bit odd that Clarkes personal home page recently featured this call to arms:
"The Music Industry has been raping our wallets for too long . . . Boycott CDs, tapes, whatever form of music you can purchase . . . Download and distrubute [sic] MP3 files."
Clarke says he didnt write this. It is quite likely that he didnt, because the Web page — at www.octayne.com — is set up in such a way that any visitor can alter it as he or she sees fit, putting into practice Clarkes philosophy that information cannot be owned.
Clarke built that idea into Freenet, peer-to-peer (P2P) software that he created that allows people to share files over the Internet in a way that is anonymous, untraceable and virtually unstoppable. Now, as chief technology officer at Uprizer, he is taking some of the concepts he developed for Freenet and turning them into software that he says will save the entertainment industry money in digital distribution. Some might see shades of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in this, but to Clarke, the boundaries are all quite clear.
"There is nothing about Uprizer which contradicts Freenet," Clarke says. "Its basically a commercial application based on the Freenet technology."
Clarke, 24, created Freenet in 1999 at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland. He got a B, he says, because he was unable to point to any prior research on which his work was based. The software got a more enthusiastic reception when Clarke released it online, turning it into an open source project. The system has been nowhere near as popular as distant cousin Napster: Freenets download site receives a modest 10,000 to 15,000 page hits per day.
Recently, Clarke moved to Santa Monica, Calif., to start Uprizer, which last month announced that it had received $4 million in funding from Intel and two venture capital firms, Kline Hawkes & Co. and Shugart Venture Fund.
The main similarity between the Freenet and Uprizer systems, Clarke says, is the way they respond to demand. In both systems, popular files are copied more widely across the network of participating computers. This avoids one major problem with the Web, where a flash flood of visitors can slow a site.
The key difference, however, is that Freenet was built to maximize anonymity. Encrypted files float around the network in such a way that participants who are running the Freenet software dont even know which files they are hosting. In Freenet, which grew out of Clarkes interest in preserving freedom of speech, spreading popular files is an anticensorship tactic.
Uprizers first product, due out this summer, exploits that same mechanism as a way for its clients to duck bandwidth charges. For example, a movie studio might pay Uprizer to release a movie trailer on its network. Those wanting to see the trailer would download Uprizers software, which would retrieve the file from another Uprizer users hard drive. The burden of serving gigabytes of video data shifts to the users, saving the studio money.
At least at first, the only files on the Uprizer network will be those that the companys clients have paid to place there, Clarke says. Users will not be able to share their own files — as they could with Freenet or Napster — a measure that could make Uprizer more appealing to potential clients such as record companies. Currently, Uprizer does not have any announced customers, though Clarke says the firm is talking to some potential beta test partners.
But Clarkes involvement with Freenet presents a tricky image problem for Uprizer. Will major copyright holders be willing to do business with a company whose most famous employee believes that copyright is obsolete?
Clarke seems to enjoy the credibility and renown that Freenet has given him in the more antiauthoritarian corners of the software world. He has described the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was backed by the entertainment industry, as "one of the most serious curtailments of freedom of speech in the last decade or two."
However, Clarke says he has been unfairly portrayed as an "anticopyright crusader." He says he is only trying to encourage companies to embrace a new reality, instead of using antipiracy tactics that threaten individual freedoms. "I certainly think that the music industry has serious problems at the moment, and I think they would agree with me in that assessment," he says. "I think that the music industry needs to change in order to accommodate the Internet."
Clarke and Rob Kramer, Uprizers CEO, stress that Freenet and Uprizer are separate projects that will share no code, only concepts. And several Uprizer executives have backgrounds in the entertainment business, which might make the companys sales pitches easier to swallow. Kramer, the former head of a digital animation studio, says he is not concerned about Clarkes radical edge. "We feel very comfortable with Ians philosophical beliefs, and how he handles those publicly," Kramer says. "But they have nothing to do with our ability to be successful as a company."
Will Clarke tone down his rhetoric on copyright issues? The pro-piracy rant disappeared from his home page soon after it was called to his attention. But the pages list of "bad things" still includes the Recording Industry Association of America. Of course, if Uprizers hoped-for entertainment industry customers arent happy with this, they can always edit the page.