When NYU art professor David Darts shows people his lunchbox, "a smile just starts creeping up on their face."
Painted black with a white skull-and-crossbones, the metal box doesn't hold a pastrami on rye; instead, it's stuffed with networking equipment and batteries, and it hosts a Debian Linux install running a barebones Python-powered Web server. The goal of this "PirateBox": to create an open file-sharing network in any public space, and to do with total privacy.
Inside the PirateBox sits a Free Agent Dockstar, an Asus WL330GE wireless router, and a SanDisk 16GB flash drive. The software, including Debian Linux and the DD-WRT open-source router firmware, is all free. The total build cost is under $100, not counting the lunchbox enclosure and the optional battery pack (the PirateBox can alternately run on AC power).
Darts' tiny Web server has one unique feature: it doesn't connect to the Internet, and it keeps no logs of any kind. Anyone who connects to the PirateBox's WiFi network is automatically directed to a basic Web interface for uploading and downloading files to the box, but privacy and security concerns mean that only local access is provided.
The PirateBox idea was really about "scratching an itch," Darts tells Ars. "I really couldn't find anything that fulfilled my need."
Darts was looking for something that would allow people in the same physical space to share files, but it had to be dead simple—no extra software or hardware allowed. So he built a PirateBox prototype and started taking it to his NYU classes. When he wanted to distribute a file to the class, he used the PirateBox, and the class used it to distribute their own documents and files to everyone else. Eventually, Darts just left the box running.
Students started sharing non-class material. When the most recent Girl Talk album came out (it's Creative Commons-licensed for sharing) and the servers were melting down, a student arrived in class one day with a copy of the album and shared it with everyone else. Darts' students, he says, are "smart enough" not to use the university network for sharing media files, even legal ones, due to concerns about surveillance.
In his demonstration pictures, Darts shows only material cleared for sharing. The skull-and-crossbones design, the purposeful lack of logging, and the choice of the "PirateBox" name all suggest, however, that this is a device not meant solely for swapping open-source Linux ISOs.
Darts admits that the PirateBox is "an artistic provocation." He wants to spark further discussion about copyright and the ways we talk about it.
"The connection between sharing and stealing has gotten very muddied," he says. "Sharing isn't the same thing as stealing."
On the project's wiki, Darts adds that "the PirateBox is designed to facilitate sharing which, by definition, is the opposite of stealing. The misleading connection between stealing and sharing has been promulgated by old media interests and their well funded lobby groups who claim that sharing and remixing copyrighted materials hurts artists… Today it is not productive to restrict sharing in order to pay for centralized production and distribution. Prohibiting people from freely sharing and remixing information and culture serves no one's interests but the publishers'."
One of Darts' main artistic concerns is the relationship between physical space and the community that develops in it. He laments the fact that media on the Internet has increasingly fallen under the thumb of major corporations; he calls his project "a symbolic response to this centralized control."