Digital Decoys Are Making Frustrated Pirates Say ‘Arrr’

Companies specializing in spoofing are latest weapon in file-trading fight.

If you’ve tried to download Linkin Park’s new single, “Somewhere I Belong,” on peer-to-peer networks like KaZaA or LimeWire lately, chances are you downloaded files that looked legit but sounded like — well, something that rhymes with “legit.”

File traders are used to weeding through the chaff to get to the wheat, but over the past year a new tactic, “spoofing,” has emerged in the fight against file trading. Spoofing is the practice of spamming trading networks with decoy files in an effort to frustrate traders, and, hopefully, drive them to seek music from one of the industry’s legitimate downloading destinations.

Not only is spoofing on the rise, but a new company called Covenant is recruiting file traders to post bogus files for them on peer-to-peer networks with the promise of cash and prizes.

Bogus downloads have been around for years, but in the old days it was usually the result of unskilled traders posting corrupted files. As major labels increase the pressure on networks where files are traded illegally and try to drive traffic to legal download services such as MusicNet, Pressplay and Rhapsody, spoofing has emerged as an effective, legal means to combat pirating, industry sources say.

“We certainly are using a number of different countermeasures to make sure people aren’t downloading illegally,” said Jeanne Meyer, a senior vice president at EMI, whose parent company’s roster includes Coldplay, Norah Jones, Kylie Minogue and Radiohead.

Though Meyer wouldn’t say whether EMI has hired spoofers, she said she was “aware” of industry leader Overpeer. EMI’s goal, she explained, is to deter people from using illegal file-sharing networks while also giving consumers the music they want, the way they want it, and making sure artists are compensated for their work.

One band whose label appears to be taking an aggressive tack on the spoofing front is Linkin Park. On a recent afternoon, attempts to download “Somewhere I Belong” from the LimeWire network resulted in about 60 percent bogus files. Additionally, songs from upcoming Madonna and Blur albums appear to have been heavily spoofed.

The spoofs featured looped messages from Linkin Park bandmembers in which they mention the title of the album and single, its release date and discuss the making of it for approximately the same duration as the three-and-a-half-minute single. The band’s label, Warner Bros., would not comment on the bogus files.

One music industry executive, who requested anonymity, said of spoofing, “Everyone is doing it, and it’s starting to take effect.”

According to Josh Bernoff, principal analyst for technology research firm Forrester Research, “It’s obvious that the reason spoofing exists is because labels have made it their business to do it.” But, he pointed out, “if you hire a hit man, you don’t talk about it.”

On Internet Usenet groups where file trading is discussed, many traders say they find the spoofs annoying at best, but easily circumvented if the user pays attention to bandwidth and naming conventions.

Overpeer blocks up to 200 million attempted acts of music, game and movie piracy on peer-to-peer networks every month, according to the New York company’s CEO, Marc Morgenstern. The files they send out are either silent, looped or designed to make a connection time out.

“Our goal,” he said, “is to have users click on our files rather than pirate files and to make it less fun and more frustrating to be a pirate and more rewarding to do the right thing.”

Morgenstern — a former exec at ASCAP, the world’s largest songwriters organization — said confidentiality agreements prevent him from naming his clients but that Overpeer is protecting 10,000 “important, current” music tracks.

Unlike much of the activities that take place on P2P sites, the spoofing of files is perfectly legal, RIAA spokesperson Jonathan Lamy said. “It’s happening and it’s just one example of a lawful and appropriate self-help measure available to the labels,” he said.

“It also confirms the adage ‘You get what you pay for,’ ” he added.

One company that is about to bring an aggressive, unusual flavor to the spoofing business is New York’s Covenant, whose Web site features the slogan “Promote upcoming albums. Protect your favorite artists. Help legitimize digital media. Win thousands of dollars for doing jack!”

Rather than trying to frustrate file traders, CEO Jim Meier said Covenant is hoping its spoofs will provide enough of a taste of songs that users will go to legitimate services and pay to download them.

A typical Covenant file, which Meier said is indistinguishable from a pirated file, plays up to a minute of a song before it is interrupted by a PSA-style announcement. In a Covenant-protected version of Three Doors Down’s “When I’m Gone,” the song plays for nearly 50 seconds before being interrupted by the message: “Earn thousands of dollars just for downloading this track, for more information go to protectedbycovenant.com.”

The song is interrupted twice more by Covenant promos, rendering it useless to most music fans. With fans able to stream songs as they download them, Meier said he had to figure out a more creative way to lure traders.

“One of the biggest problems with other anti-piracy companies is that they want to operate in extreme secrecy,” Meier said. “We want consumers to know who we are. Like martial arts, where you use the opponent’s force against them, we want to use the pirate networks’ software against them.”

Rather than agitate consumers, Meier said he wants to lure them by giving them a taste and then enticing them to help distribute the Covenant files themselves with the promise of random drawings of cash and prizes.

“We’re not against online transfer of files,” he said. “If you got rid of the copyright infringement aspect, these are incredible sites. We want to help turn the anti-music industry tide by offering cash, autographed CDs and backstage passes and let users promote their favorite bands.”

Meier said the prizes will be paid for by Covenant based on the amount the company receives from its clients.

With more than 200 million illegally traded music files changing hands every month, Forrester’s Bernoff said it will take more than signed CDs and cash for spoofing to make a dent.

“On the one hand, the Achilles heel of KaZaA and LimeWire is that they claim to not know what content is on their system. It also means they can’t legally act to remove spoofed files,” he said. “But, if you can turn even five percent of downloaders into spoofers, that would be enough of an inconvenience that it might not be worth it anymore.”

Often guilty, never convicted. 15 years behind bars at MTV News.