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Originally published Monday, May 9, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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File-sharing site poised for "revolution"

Mike Homer sees the future of public broadcasting, and it's on the Internet. Or rather, it is the Internet. Homer and erstwhile Netscape...

Los Angeles Times

Mike Homer sees the future of public broadcasting, and it's on the Internet.

Or rather, it is the Internet.

Homer and erstwhile Netscape wunderkind Marc Andreessen are using file-sharing technology to distribute audio and video files for free online. Unlike Kazaa and other popular "peer to peer" programs, however, the Open Media Network allows only authorized sharing and weeds out bootlegged goods.

The nonprofit network is designed to be an outlet for anyone who creates audiovisual works, be it an independent filmmaker, a public-television station or a hobbyist with a camera or a microphone.

The effort tries to tap the growth in noncommercial and grass-roots media epitomized by Web logs, the personal Web sites frequently updated with fresh reporting, commentary and creativity.

Web logs, or blogs, have grown from a handful of sites in 1997 to about 31 million today, by the Open Media Network's count.

More broadly, the rise in high-speed Internet connections has fueled an evolution of the Web from a medium heavy on text and graphics into a source of music and moving pictures as well. And the proliferation of low-price digital camcorders and recording gear has created millions of potential producers of entertainment and information in search of an audience.

The challenge for organizations such as Sunnyvale, Calif.-based Open Media Network, though, is generating a market for this new material, said John Palfrey, the executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard Law School.

Such efforts can attract an audience if users easily can sort through the "undifferentiated mass" and find what interests them, Palfrey said.

"But I think most of them are going to fail," he added, because "they won't get that stuff right, and it will just be a mass that's very hard to sort through."

All the same, the field has drawn some big players. Google and Yahoo! are building collections of video files, including television shows and homemade movies, that users can search through and, in some cases, watch.

"I really believe there's a big, huge publishing revolution," said Homer, who has provided some of the startup capital for the Open Media Network. "A new system like this can take advantage of it."


The Open Media Network's approach is different from Google's and Yahoo!'s in at least two important ways.

First, Homer said, the Open Media Network will offer several means to help people navigate its offerings. Its TV-style program guide is expected to sort files by type and topic, as well as list the most popular ones. Later this year, it plans to let users rate files, post comments about them and provide descriptive tags to help identify the files to searchers.

Second, users can download copies of files on the network, rather than just watch them or read transcripts. The Open Media Network's file-sharing technology, which comes from Kontiki of Sunnyvale, Calif., slashes distribution costs by having users download popular files from one another's computers, not the Open Media Network's servers.

Kontiki tries to deter piracy by keeping a tight lid on the material that users can share. This central control makes it difficult to publish copyright audio or video on the Open Media Network without the copyright owner's permission and easy to remove anything that proves to be pirated, Homer said.

The network also can distribute files with electronic locks, enabling copyright owners to restrict copying or demand fees for playback.

Homer, Kontiki's founder and chairman, said the several thousand files available on the Open Media Network could be downloaded free.

Later this year, though, the network plans to introduce tools that will enable publishers to charge for their works. The fees they generate will be split with the Open Media Network, helping to cover its costs, Homer said.

Among the network's first suppliers are numerous audio and video bloggers such as Los Angeles-based Shannon Noble, the creator of "This Is Vlog," whose works are syndicated online.

Others include Cinequest, a San Jose, Calif.-based motion-picture institute that offers independent features and short films, and three public broadcasters: KWSU in Pullman, KQED in San Francisco and WGBH in Boston.

John Boland, KQED's chief content officer, said his company was experimenting with several alternative ways to deliver its TV and radio programming "to try to meet what we feel the demand of consumers will be, which is to have their content where they want it when they want it."

Using the Internet not only helps KQED retain supporters by keeping up with their shifting habits but helps the station to reach new ones, said Boland and Tim Olson, the director of KQED Interactive.

The station's flexibility to experiment is limited by "mind- boggling" copyright issues, Boland said. Still, Olson said, the company is working with several online distributors because "it's so early in this marketplace that it's really hard to say how it's going to shake out."

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