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US Patent Office says P2P threatens national security

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The US Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) has launched a stinging attack on peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing services, publishing a report (pdf) from its Office of International Relations earlier this month.

"A decade ago, the idea that copyright infringement could become a threat to national security would have seemed implausible," said USPTO director Jon Dudas, introducing the document. "Now, it's a sad reality."

The report examines popular P2P platforms BearShare, eDonkey, KaZaA, LimeWire, and Morpheus. The central thrust of the authors is that the programs are designed to get users to share files inadvertently, thus incriminating themselves. They conclude that “the distributors of these five file-sharing programs have repeatedly deployed features that had a known propensity to trick users into uploading infringing files by accident.”

The USPTO writers admit, however, that “in each case, an obscure mechanism appears to allow sophisticated users to avoid the coerced-sharing feature and stop sharing.” They go on to speculate that “schemes that targeted young or unsophisticated users would also ensure that attempts to enforce copyrights against those infringers who upload hundreds or thousands of infringing files would tend to target young or sympathetic users.” This would cunningly make the people doing the enforcing look bad, as they hauled the P2P distributors’ youthful dupes into court.

The threat to national security comes in when people with sensitive information install P2P software. Dudas said the “government employees or contractors who had installed file-sharing programs on their home or work computers … repeatedly compromised national and military security by sharing files containing sensitive or classified data.”

Sensitive materials have appeared on file-sharing networks for years, but typically viruses or intentional leaks have been blamed. In this case, the USPTO is pointing the finger squarely at the P2P designers.

“There will almost never be a legitimate business or governmental justification for employee use of file-sharing programs,” says the report.

Many might ask exactly why the patents office felt the need to weigh in here. However, Dudas’ full job title is Undersecretary of Commerce for Intellectual Property, and the USPTO makes no secret of the fact that it sees itself with a big role in copyright protection and even enforcement. The patent authorities aren’t concerned with protecting national security. They are acting here mainly to protect copyright. ®

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