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This is how I make all my decisions: WURLD Media CEO Greg Kerber.

photo: Chris Shields

Learning to Share
By Kirsten Ferguson

With major labels on board, a Saratoga Springs company prepares to unveil its pioneering online file-sharing service

 

‘It’s Terminator technology,” says WURLD Media CEO Greg Kerber, peering at a laptop in his Saratoga Springs office. Toys, from a gun-toting Arnold Schwarzenegger action figure to a Magic 8 Ball, surround him. A U2 album is downloading on Kerber’s computer as we speak. His laptop harvests tiny chunks of each U2 song, bit by bit, from the personal computers of other people connected to Wurld Media’s Peer Impact network. Currently in beta—the last stage of testing before a computer product is commercially released—Peer Impact will officially launch in the coming weeks. When it does, the pay download service will offer close to 1.4 million (“and growing”) digital music, video and game files.

The technology that Kerber, a Rensselaer County native, likens to the power of Arnie’s futuristic android is peer-to-peer. It’s an application that allows users to search for and swap music and other digital media files. The technology is potent because it connects groups of personal computers so their processing power and memory can be pooled. The network that results can rival the power of larger centralized systems. Like a monstrous spider sucking life from the quarry in its web, the system only gets stronger as more users enter the fold. “The bigger the network gets, the more efficient it becomes for consumers,” Kerber says. “Speeds become faster.”

Although peer-to-peer computer technology has been around for decades, 18-year-old Shawn Fanning revolutionized the world of digital media in 1999 when he created Napster, the first peer-to-peer network that allowed users to share music files. It took the recording industry less than a year to clamp down on the frenzy of free music downloading that ensued among the nation’s technologically savvy youth. Napster eventually was scuttled by multiple copyright-infringement lawsuits from entertainment industry players like the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). Napster still exists today, albeit in neutered form as a less-popular legal subscription service for music downloading.

Some might argue that the RIAA’s ongoing campaign to intimidate illegal downloaders via lawsuit has only alienated digital music traders and driven them further underground. Still, there remains a growing market for people who want a legal or no-risk way to purchase digital media online. Apple’s popular iTunes music store has sold more than 200 million songs since launching in 2003, but Peer Impact is one of the first online music services to make use of the efficient peer-to-peer technology. (For now, Peer Impact’s 99-cent-per-song price will match the industry standard established by iTunes.)

Wurld Media has signed partnerships to distribute digital content for some of the biggest players in the entertainment industry, including SONY BMG Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group and Warner Music Group. It seems the major record companies have finally realized that peer-to-peer technology can be a friend, not just foe. What took them so long?

“The recording industry probably should have moved faster to embrace the technology,” Kerber admits. “But they didn’t, so we’re where we are today.” He credits the company he founded in 1999, along with his cousin Kirk Feathers and Joe Hatch, with approaching the entertainment industry in a new way. “We went in with a protocol and said, ‘Here is our idea of how a peer-to-peer, built for the consumer, would work.’ We really participated with them first. That was an unusual path to take with the industry.”

Though plenty of users will continue to seek out illicit means for obtaining music and movies online, a legitimate service like Peer Impact does offer benefits that the unregulated peer-to-peer networks cannot. For one, Peer Impact’s centralized system is capable of identifying the digital “DNA” of all the files in its network, which prevents files from being mislabeled, degraded or otherwise altered. “You don’t have to worry about viruses,” Kerber says. “It’s a safe place for people to download. If you change the smallest percentage of a file’s DNA, you won’t be able to share it with others in the network. It’s more specific than fingerprints.”

Peer Impact has other built-in benefits designed to appeal to music, movie and gaming fans. “First of all, we’re building a full community,” Kerber explains. “Users have the ability to discuss things. There are forums within the application. You’re able to be a part of the music community today. The immediate result is this vast network where you can get anything you want. It gives the consumer incredible choice. Say I go buy the Harry Potter soundtrack. I can see the game and the movie right next to it. We can bundle all of that in a single package and give the consumer a discount.”

In addition to signing distribution deals with the majors, Wurld Media has enlisted hosts of yet-to-be-named independent labels to be a part of the service. “We’re pursuing lots and lots of content,” he says. “We’ve got a strategy for independent artists. We really think that’s important. We’ve got a whole initiative for independent artists in terms of promotion and the sale of their albums and tracks. We’ve got independent movies too.” Wurld Media has also been involved with the digitization of thousands of hours of material from the public domain. “We’ve got things people have never seen before,” Kerber says, mentioning unseen footage from World War II and a film about Marilyn Monroe.

The company hopes that such content will appeal to people who have yet to dip their toes into the sea of digital media. “Over the holidays recently, I had the opportunity to spend time with older relatives,” Kerber says. “There’s a misconception by the older demographic that music available for download is all hiphop and alternative rock. I sat there with people who didn’t realize that they could get a Patsy Cline or a Linda Ronstadt album online. They had no idea. This is not just for young people. Part of our goal will be to satisfy other demographics.”

Unfortunately, that demographic for now will not include iPod users, of whom there are millions. Peer Impact files are in Windows Media format (and then wrapped in DRM technology that prevents them from being shared unless paid for). Windows Media files are not compatible with Apple’s popular iTunes software or with iPods. “We interface with 400 portable players, just not iPod. If we had our way, we would be compatible. That’s his choice,” Kerber says, referring to Apple honcho Steve Jobs, who refuses to synch his player with the Microsoft monolith’s software.

Politics aside, Kerber prefers to bring the downloading discussion back to the perspective of the artists, who may (or may not, depending on whom you ask) be damaged by the rampant music piracy that has taken place in the past few years. “People always talk about the consumer and the recording industry. There’s an artist involved in the process,” Kerber states. “There’s someone who has worked really hard to offer something that is art. If young kids and adults appreciate what these artists have done, then we should support them.”


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