Online Lending Libraries for Digital Media

August 23, 2009

Here are some things I want to do:

  • Put my pictures of my latest family vacation on the web, where my friends and family can see them. Let my mother put her pictures of the same events there, too. Let me select some for my friends to see, and her select some for her friends to see. Know that the pictures will be there, safe, for as long as anyone in the family wants them to be.
  • Put my movie collection on the web, so I can watch my movies wherever I happen to be, and so can my kids. If one of them is at a friend’s house, why should it matter if she remembered to bring the DVD, if the house has a good network connection?
  • Borrow my friends’ movies and music from time to time. If I want to watch some old college favorite (let’s say Heathers), and I know my friend Keith has a copy, must I drive 20 minutes to his house to borrow his DVD? No, I want him to have it on his server, and let me borrow it. (Note that I’m not asking to make my own copy. What I want might or might not break some laws, but it seems to me that if I can legally borrow his physical DVD for a few days, I should also be able to legally borrow the bits on his DVD. As long as there’s still only one working copy at any point in time, I expect the MPAA wont be quite so furious with me.
  • I want this copy-protection to be only advisory; if Greg borrows my copy, and somehow loses it or it breaks, I can just reclaim it. If he finds it again, his copy is an illegal one. There’s no need for security here (someone would just crack it anyway); I just want to make it easy for people who want to follow the rules to do so, and I hope the system would usually make it easier to follow the rules than to break them.
  • I want this to be private. I’m talking about sharing with my friends here, not sharing with the world. I may not want the world looking through the family vacation pictures, and I don’t want strangers borrowing my movies if it’s going to prevent me from watching them. I certainly don’t want strangers copying movies I paid for if it’s going to make the MPAA apoplectic (as I’m sure it would).

I know: youtube, myspace, flickr and their less-popular but more-exciting rivals offer something like this. But I want it decentralyzed. When I say private, I mean private from everyone, including Google and News Corp and Yahoo/Microsoft. And when I say I want the pictures to be there, “safe”, more-or-less forever, I don’t just mean until some corporation decides to change its terms of service, or capriciously enforce some clause I never noticed.

I think we can do this.


The heart of any system like this is the servers, of course. I suggest that a few people in each cluster of friends would be willing to pay a few dollars a month for some managed web space. Imagine it as a locker, and they tell their friends the combination. Or a private island, and they give their friends the right to land, in their private jets. (Virtual private jets are free in this modern world.) It’s a web location where they and their friends can store their digital media, where it’s easy to access. (When users access these storage sites, I picture them generally not caring about location; I look for “Healthers” and it finds all the copies all my friends are willing to share — no need to specifically ask Keith. With this, redundancy should be convenient and encouraged.)

I picture the server software being pretty simple (web+db), and something any web hosting provider could offer with one-click installation. Like wordpress, etc, but even simpler. The point is that if you want your own locker/island, you could rent one for $5/mo (low end) to $50/mo (high end), from commodity providers.

The data would be stored encrypted, so the host computers and hosting services never get to see what bits are really stored. They can’t see the family pictures or hollywood movies, even if they want to, no matter their terms of service or pressure from the government.

(These secure network volumes already exist, in various forms, most famously Amazon S3. There’s no magic here, but we might want a few tweaks to the API, and there’s definitely a need to package it differently so that my mother can comfortable sign up for hers. Also, I think this would support a market for cheaper and less-reliable storage, since reliability could be provided by other means.)


The clients would be more than just browsers. They have to understand the media tagging and indexing, and handle the crypto. They’d probably offer discussion boards, and such, as part of the media metadata.

I’m imagining three different kinds of clients:

  1. A purely web-based client would allow users an experience very much like flickr and youtube. It could show ads, and it would know your encryption keys, but at least it wouldn’t be hosting the media data, so you could move from one to another without risk of losing your photos, music, and movies.
  2. A plug-in for a media player like VLC.
  3. A command-line, virtual-file-system client. This is the kind of thing I might hack together as a prototype, using fuse. All the lockers to which I have keys would appear as a big filesystem, and there would be some tools for searching and manipulating it. I could use my existing media players, unmodified.

That’s the gist of it. I have lots more details floating around in my
head. Does it exist already? Shall I go ahead and make a prototype
(in my copious free after-hours time)?

4 Responses to “Online Lending Libraries for Digital Media”

  1. Dan Brickley Says:

    Somewhat in this space (apart from the tunneling through 1 company’s server) is Opera Unite ( Idea being to have web browsing clients that also expose http services. Not sure how well it’d work with huge video files or streaming services though…

  2. Rob Kudla Says:

    (Reposted from my Facebook comment, which was pretty close to the maximum size for a Facebook comment so I probably missed some things, and added a few extra notes at the bottom)

    I think the market might be better served by a turnkey Windows/Mac installer for the Tahoe VFS (Win/Mac since if it gets popular, free operating systems will preinstall it) and some way to piggyback it on people’s web hosting storage. After your proposed basic apps, more will evolve. I think that even more than a simple web interface, something … Read Morethat hooked into iTunes and let you “check out” your friends’ songs would drive adoption.

    What you should really be asking yourself is, why would the copyright-industry associations not sue everyone involved with this the way they’ve sued other locker services in the past? For that reason, I think it’s a moot point to put any copy protection in there, however minimal; they’ve already made clear that they think companies offering users the ability to store legally obtained works encrypted on remote servers constitutes copyright infringement. Plus, twerps like me would just strip it out or write a more permissive clone.

    As an aside, there’s no reason the client couldn’t be built initially as a Firefox or Opera extension, similar to what Dan Brickley suggested above.

    As a clarification, two examples of previous bit locker services having been sued are (they lost to the tune of $250 million) and (they won.) But admittedly, they were more centralized than what you’re describing, with both companies providing the client software and the service. They were also more limited, though, in that they didn’t permit any sharing between users at all. I’ve never been to law school so I don’t get the finer details of what happened, just that one killed a company and the other still exists today in scaled-back form.

  3. Rob Kudla Says:

    A clarification to my clarification: didn’t win their trial (serves me right for trusting Wikipedia); it was EMI’s lawsuit that named the founder personally that got dismissed. The EMI v. MP3tunes trial is still on for January.

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