File swapping aficionados beware. Those MP3s you've been storing on your office computer could soon catch the attention of your network administrator and may even bring the wrath of the legal department down upon your head.
On Tuesday, Macrovision Inc., a maker of digital copyright protection technology and Websense Inc., a maker of employee Internet management software, announced a strategic partnership to develop tools for locating pirated files on corporate and government networks, according to a statement released by the two companies.
The partnership is a response to heightened concern among corporations that they could be the target of lawsuits filed by industry groups such as the Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) or the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) when company resources are used to download, store, or distribute pirated content.
The RIAA and Integrated Information Systems Inc. (IIS) of Tempe, Arizona, acknowledged in April that IIS had agreed to pay the RIAA US$1 million in damages when it was discovered that employees used a company server to share pirated MP3 files.
"This is a self-fulfilling prophecy," said Kian Saneii, vice president of business development at Websense of San Diego, California.
"As the MPAA and RIAA make an issue of this, people will get sued and have to fork over money. All you need is a few lawsuits in order for people to say 'I need this (software) to sleep well at night.'"For Websense, which works in a sector it calls 'employee Internet management' or 'EIM,' the partnership with Macrovision is just one phase of an expansion of their Websense Enterprise product from an Internet access management application working at the network edge to a content management application that sanitizes both the employee's desktop and online environments.
"Employees' (computers) are now basically home entertainment centers. Our customers were saying 'the computing environment is bigger than the (Web) browser. Your product is not letting them get to gaming (Web) sites, but they're playing Doom or Solitaire or instant messaging all day long,'" Saneii said.
Websense's desktop client will monitor user activity on the desktop and manage that activity according to policies set forth by the company and network administrator, much like its Internet management software does for Web browsing, according to Saneii. Application, port, and protocol level activity associated with network games, peer-to-peer applications, or instant messaging can all be tracked, logged, and locked down.
The integration of Macrovision's SafeDisc and SafeScan digital rights management technology with Websense makes it possible to determine whether a particular media file is a legal copy, or whether it is pirated code, according to Saneii.
"We need to know, if an employee has the 'Star Wars' DVD on their hard drive, if it's a copyright protected version of 'Star Wars' that they legally purchased online, or a hacked version -- and if it's a hacked version, whether they're distributing it," Saneii said.
Still, the liability of companies for the actions of their employees in handling pirated material is still an open question, says Jonathan Zittrain, assistant professor of law at Harvard University Law School and co-director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society.
He sees the introduction of monitoring technology such as that being developed by Websense and Macrovision as a development that benefits copyright holders more than companies and their employees.
"My sense is 'score one for the content publishers'," said Zittrain.
"It represents an education that has taken place with content publishers and the companies that market to them about the topography of the Internet -- a very intelligent view of the different bottlenecks along the path from one music lover to another."
Harvard's Zittrain also wonders whether companies such as Websense and Macrovision aren't tapping a more general anxiety about viruses and spam e-mail in the corporate sphere to push what is otherwise intrusive software.
"This comes at a propitious moment for content publishers. You have a convergence in the workplace environment of a desire to build firewalls and virus scanners and a desire, because of concerns about sex harassment, to filter emails to prevent pornography. It's brilliant to call (the joint product) a 'liability protector.' Who wouldn't want to buy a liability protector?"
Websense's Saneii doesn't see his product as an infringement on personal liberties. The policies enforced by Websense's technology, he points out, are most often spelled out in the employee handbook.
"We don't make value judgements. We make enabling technologies," Saneii said.
And, with Websense's software controlling activities on the desktop, employers won't have to worry about personally policing their employees -- the software will do it for them.
According to Saneii, Websense and Macrovision have performed proof-of-concept tests integrating SafeScan with the Websense product, but don't expect to have a product to market before the second quarter of 2003.
Pricing for the new technology has also not been set, though Saneii suggested that the company was considering a number of options including rolling Macrovision's technology into Websense's existing per-seat subscription service, adding it as a separate premium service for existing customers on top of the Websense Enterprise product, or giving the service away for free on a trial basis.
Macrovision could not be reached for comment.