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12/7/2007
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Western Digital Blocks Media File Sharing From Storage Device

Some consumers are up in arms, but Western Digital said it chose to stay clear of any capabilities that could be seen as challenging the rights of copyright holders.

External storage units have become popular for transferring electronic media between PCs and other networked devices, but stories surfacing Friday suggest some devices made by Western Digital put the brakes on sharing of the most common audio and video files.

The restriction is embedded in the Anywhere Access software within the My Book World Edition, a 1Tbyte storage device made by Western Digital that provides a backup for Windows PCs, as well as the ability to access files remotely from another computer via a Web browser. The company installed the software in its consumer and small business network-attached storage device to prevent unauthorized distribution of copyrighted content.

While registered users of the software can access any file remotely, files of common audio and video formats, such as AVI, MP3, MPEG and DivX, cannot be shared. Western Digital on Friday said remote sharing of files from one of its storage devices is new to the company, so Western Digital chose to stay clear of any capabilities that could be seen as challenging the rights of copyright holders. Unauthorized use of audio and video on the Web has become a major problem with Hollywood studios and record companies on one side and Web sites, such as Google's YouTube, on the other.

"The company has started out very conservatively in creating a certain set of features and functions," Brian Miller, director of marketing for Western Digital, told InformationWeek. "As we go forward, the goal is to listen to what the marketplace needs and wants, and identify the most appropriate solution that respects intellectual property."

Some people, however, see the issue differently, criticizing Western Digital for deciding on its own what customers can do with their own content, since there's no way for the company to know whether files are being shared illegally or not. "This is the most extreme example I've seen yet of tech companies crippling data devices in order to please Hollywood," said Gary, whose comment was posted on BoingBoing by blogger Cory Doctorow.

Gary went on to say that Western Digital had also limited the value of its device. "Who needs a 1Tbyte network-connected hard drive that is prohibited from serving most media files? Perhaps somebody with 220 million pages of .txt files they need to share?"

For customers of My Book World Edition, the restriction has not been a problem, according to Miller. The product, which has been available since February and sells for $380, is targeted for use in homes and small offices, and most of them have been satisfied with sharing documents and photos. "Most customers we're talking to have been pretty happy with the product," he said.

According to SparrowHawk, who left a comment on Gary's post, a workaround would be renaming audio and video files with a different extension, such as "filename-mp3.text." Miller had no comment on tactics to bypass the Western Digital software.

The software within My Book World Edition limits the number of users with unique IDs and passwords to five. The accounts have to be set up by a designated administrator. The Anywhere Access software enables people to access files from a remote computer's Web browser, or any computer with the Anywhere Access client installed.

To share files, a public folder is created, and a link is emailed to people targeted to receive the information. To access the folder, a person would click on the link, which loads a Java applet into the person's browser to establish communications between the remoter computer and the storage device. The applet also handles the decryption of files, since all data in the device is encrypted for security.

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