Attribution Problems Plague File Sharing

Harry Potter fans hoping to download a “leaked” copy of J.K. Rowling’s final book in the series, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows”, may have received an unusual surprise.

At least one of the files being distributed on BitTorrent claiming to be the book was, in truth, a copy of a fan fiction work entitled “The Seventh Horcrux” by Melindaleo.

Though Melindaleo already gives her fan fiction work away for free on the Web, the misattribution was very disturbing for her. As she said in an email, “I got nervous that I’d be jinxing the whole fanfic writing thing for everyone.”

Worse still, she was also worried about ending up in the cross hairs of J.K. Rowling, her publisher and her lawyers.

Even though Rowling has supported and condoned the fan fiction community that has sprung up around Harry Potter, this does not bode well for her either. After all, some may believe the book to be the actual release and not bother picking up a real copy when it is release, at least not until they discover the error.

No one wins with this misidentification but it is a situation that is becoming all too common on file sharing networks. Misattributed files are hurting authors, including those who want their work on the networks, and are limiting the usefulness of the services to promote new music, art and literature.

A Musician’s Dilemma

Though piracy has gotten the lion’s share of attention when it comes to file sharing, those who have wanted to use the file sharing networks as a tool to promote their art have been haunted by a different problem, misattributed files. This has been especially true for musicians that have been trying to grow their careers using the various networks.

Some, especially lesser known artists, have had their music attributed to other groups, usually more popular musicians. Others, such as Weird Al (see May 2000 column), have had other people’s music misattributed to them, often tarnishing their reputation.

Sometimes the misattribution is intentional. Both movie studios and record labels are known for flooding the file sharing networks with false files in an attempt to hinder the downloading of pirated material. Most of the time though, the misattribution is accidental, the uploader unsure or misinformed about the creator of the work uploads it with incorrect credentials.

This is extremely frustrating to artists that want to use file sharing networks in an attempt to promote their careers. If the music files they share don’t have the correct name on them, then all of the free downloads do them no good, serving instead as false promotion for artists that had nothing to do with the song.

However, even the bands getting the promotion gain nothing. With no albums containing the song and means of playing them at concerts. They can not live up to the expectations the file creates. They also run the risk of being accused of plagiarism down the road, even if they had nothing to do with the change in attribution.

It’s an annoying problem that is now spreading to other genres.

A Spreading Problem

Of course, file sharing has not been limited to music for many years. Now, any type of file can be shared including video, software, music, images and text.

Sadly, all of them suffer, in varying degrees from misidentification.

Video and image files suffer the least, those files are easily watermarked visually and those marks are very difficult to remove. Audio files, however, rely upon embedded tags that can either be easily changed or, depending on how the song was ripped, added incorrectly in the beginning.

Text, however, is the easiest to plagiarize and misidentify. File names can be changed easily and attribution can be removed, lost or altered very easily. It is also easy to mistakenly not copy attribution when selecting a large block of text and accidentally pass around a file with no author information attached at all.

In this regard, the content is exactly like the rest of the Web in what is and is not easy to plagiarize. However, books are very rarely traded on file sharing networks (Note: study done by bandwidth, not file count, still searching for new study) and only major authors, such as Rowling, are sought after on them.

In that aspect, Melindaleo’s case is exceptionally rare. With very few books being traded on file sharing networks, it is unlikely that many authors will have significant issues with file sharing networks, unless they become very popular offline first.

Still, artists working in other types of media need to consider taking precautions to prevent their work from being misattributed, or even outright plagiarized, over the file sharing networks.

Preventing the Problem

If you’re a content producer, especially if you work heavily in audio or video, you need to take some basic precautions to ensure the integrity of your attribution:

  1. Post It Yourself: If you are comfortable with users sharing your files, don’t just tell them they can legally rip and download them, do it yourself. Rip your own files and post them to the various networks. This not only ensures the quality of the media, but that the attribution takes the exact form you want.
  2. Watermark Everything: Images and video both should be visibly watermarked if they are going to be distributed. Small, out of the way watermarks on both are very hard to remove and will carry with the work as it is copied and redownloaded, no matter how many times the name is changed.
  3. Don’t Rely On Tags: ID3 tags on MP3s are too easily altered and removed. If you plan on using file sharing to promote your music, an audio tag at the end of the file is a better solution. Though it can be cut off with editing software, that is less likely to happen that it be overwritten by a program that can manipulate ID3 tags.
  4. Multiple Attribution Points for Text: If you plan on posting a very lengthy work of text, include several points of attribution inside the work, perhaps one at each chapter, to avoid it from being easily or accidentally removed.
  5. Hashing For Protection: If you plan to offer your files for download on file sharing networks, have an official page where you post the hashes for the files. This way downloaders can be certain they got an authentic copy of the file and that all of the information in it is correct.

The problem with file sharing is that, once a misattributed file gets out, there’s almost no way to reel it back in. Though one can use the matching files feature to find works with the same content but different names, there’s almost no way to stop their distribution other than sending messages to the people distributing the misidentified files and asking them to change it.

It is far more productive to focus on prevention and flood the market with properly attributed files than try to stop erroneous ones creep out.


Fortunately, the Melindaleo story seems to be coming to a nice enough conclusion. Though the misattributed file is still available, Melidaleo has been in contact with Rowling’s agents and they are very understanding about the situation, leaving the next course of action up to her.

As the truth has gotten out about her story, she has drawn some very real and very positive attention for her efforts. The story has even gartered high praise from some who have downloaded it and later learned of the source.

However, others who have their works plagiarized and misattributed on file sharing networks may not be so lucky. Some songs and videos that are passed around regularly may never be traced back to their origin, not without serious research, and those creators are unlikely to see any significant benefit from the sharing.

The hope is that, as technology advances and sharing becomes both more common and more acceptable, that better ways to ensure attribution will be protected.

After all, file sharing may constitute piracy in some cases, but it is not supposed to be about plagiarism. Attribution costs nothing and giving credit where it is due is still good manners.

Hopefully that will improve as time goes on.

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