Wayne Chang looked like an average 22-year-old as he walked into Starbucks on Boylston Street and ordered a chai latte. He was relaxed and soft-spoken, and there wasn’t a single person in the café who suspected him to be the CEO of the most widely used collaborating system on college campuses across the country.
As sole creator of the peer-to-peer network i2hub.com, Chang and his business have been targeted by the most powerful names in the entertainment industry and are involved with controversial copyright lawsuits.
Chang said when he created i2hub in 2003 he never expected the site to be so popular or profitable and he is continuously surprised by the attention the program receives from the Recording Industry Association of America.
“I started it in my dorm room at [the University of Massachusetts- Amherst],” Chang said, who was a sophomore at the time. “It took all of spring break.”
Although Chang withdrew from UMass in December of his junior year, he hasn’t been lacking opportunities without a college degree. He is still the senior partner of i2hub and is the Director of Corporate Comm-unications at Pacific Northwest, which makes him “third or fourth in line out of 40 [employees],” he said.
But as for i2hub, Chang said he is amazed at its popularity.
“I started [i2hub] in February of 2003 and it ran for about a month but I had to shut it down because it was too popular too fast,” he said. “I restored it in March of 2004 and I was surprised that no one thought of doing the same thing, and it really took off on campus.”
A “HACKER-ISH BACKGROUND”
Chang said he began working in the computer science industry at the age of 11 and describes himself as having a “hacker-ish background.”
By age 15, he worked at the original Napster while he attended high school in Haverhill.
“At Napster, I was an administrator. I started the popular Napster Digital Forum, which grew to be one of the most popular forums online at that time,” Chang said. “I worked for a bunch of dot coms during high school. I’d go to school and then work till 2 a.m. I got phone calls in class before cell phones were popular, and I’d have to go to the bathroom to take business calls.”
Chang said he started i2hub with the idea that college students should have an avenue to interact with each other, and the program was not intended to be a file sharing medium.
“Music or movies are not advertised on i2hub,” Chang said. “It was supposed to be like an [Instant Messenger] for college students … It’s supposed to bring students together, and do what Facebook did later.”
Chang said he worked with other young entrepreneurs at Napster, including Facebook president Sean Parker and ConnectU founders Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss. He used the momentum from his work to create something with a whole new feel.
“It’s a little edgier market,” Chang said. “i2hub is a whole different thing … There are hundreds of thousands of users across the country. It spans more than 600 colleges and we’re adding all the time.”
Originally, Chang said the site was self-funded, which was difficult because the program’s “huge server” needed constant maintaining. So he rented an office and hired a staff to work for him, including two developers in Seattle and Ukraine to keep the business current.
“Now we have VIP accounts [to fund the site],” Chang said. “VIP accounts allow people to access [i2hub] off campus and anywhere. It’s free for students on campus but the money from VIP helps us with costs.”
And to organize the site and thousands of i2hub users, Chang said he recruits representatives from colleges to market his product, help manage the individual schools and work to make the collaborating system grow.
“There were a lot of schools and a lot of students with lots of i2hubs,” he said about the program’s beginning. “There were little hubs for each school so we got representatives for each school…It was like acquisitions, but on a larger scale.”
AND THEN CAME THE RIAA
In April of 2004, the RIAA filed 400 lawsuits against college students at 18 colleges across the country, including 25 lawsuits at BU, according to an April 13 article in The Daily Free Press. And as the number of suits against students using i2hub increased, Chang said his business was hit hard.
“I wanted to make it clear to the public that i2hub doesn’t encourage copyright infringement,” Chang said. “The RIAA has been going after students for a long time, and will go after more as time goes on. Each round of lawsuits funds the next round.”
Students who received lawsuits in April collectively downloaded more than 1.5 million illegal files, including 930,000 music files, from collaborating networks such as i2hub, according to an April 12 statement by the RIAA.
In its statement, the RIAA said students were downloading files, “through the use of a file-sharing application known as ‘i2hub,’ however, Internet2 is increasingly becoming the network of choice for students seeking to steal copyrighted songs and other works on a massive scale.”
In conjunction with the RIAA filings, BU spokesman Colin Riley said students caught illegally sharing files will also face university regulation.
“It’s an RIAA issue, not a university issue. We warn students not to violate the student code,” Riley said in the April 13 Daily Free Press article. “In addition to hiring an attorney and defending yourself with the RIAA, you will likely have to have a discussion with the Office of Judicial Affairs.”
And just yesterday, a California man who ran a file-sharing hub and pleaded guilty to a single felony count of conspiracy to commit grand theft in August was sentenced to three years probation and ordered to use his computer only for personal use, according to a New York Times article.
Chang said he remembers the day when the RIAA came down on i2hub users.
“I was really surprised. The first person to tell me was an [Associated Press] reporter. He said to watch out because i2hub was going to be in the news,” he said. “It all happened in one day. I got about 10,000 phone calls and emails flooding in. I issued a press release that said we fully supported copyright holders.
“We’re the most popular service on college campuses and they really wanted to make a point on college campuses,” he continued.
Chang projected that i2hub users account for 4 or 5 percent of the lawsuits.
“There’s a lot, a lot, a lot of momentum going for the entertainment industry,” he said. “Anything we do at this point on is in response to them. They have hundreds of millions of dollars to spend … and this isn’t the fight to put it all in for.
“It’s tough to go against billion-dollar companies,” he continued. “There are multiples of them, and their army of lawyers.”
Chang also said there is hope for users who are sued by the RIAA because “most of the people who have fought back have won” through investigation errors.
And with the suits posing as a constant threat to all collaborating program users, Chang said he’s not particularly worried for himself or his company because, “I don’t commit copyright infringement or do anything illegal.
“There’s no way to protect yourself from a lawsuit,” he said. “We just make sure that what we’re doing isn’t illegal and so far we don’t think what we’re doing is illegal. But to actually defend that and prove it will take a lot of resources, which we don’t have.
“With [Instant Messenger] you can also share files,” Chang continued. “Massive copyright infringements happen on [America Online], via email, chat rooms, etcetera – however, the RIAA hasn’t talked to them.”
Even without filing suits against i2hub, Chang said the RIAA approached him and requested him to “cease and desist” all activities on the network or filter each student’s file to determine what is protected by copyright and what is not.
“I want everything to work out for the recording company and the students and i2hub,” Chang said. “But worrying isn’t productive. We’re working it out with the RIAA and there are many possibilities for i2hub. To keep it going as it currently is means a long, expensive court battle.
“And if shutting down is the best route, that is one we’ll have to explore,” he continued. “There is a lot of pressure on i2hub right now, so something has to change. If we want to continue the way we are, it will take significant resources. i2hub has a possibility of not being operational soon.”
“PEOPLE STILL LOVE i2hub”
Among Chang’s options for i2hub’s future include selling his venture, for which he has already received million-dollar offers. But he said this is not his first choice.
“I’ve had a few offers [to sell] but I didn’t trust anyone to run i2hub the way I would have,” Chang said. “Some wanted to inject a bunch of spyware or adware, others wanted to flood it with porn. i2hub has been ad-free for most of its existence.”
And for now, while Chang has a secure job at a software company, doing what he said he likes to do, the future is open, and for now he isn’t concerned about the future of i2hub.
“We have about 3,000 concurrent users on i2hub right now,” Chang said. “The chat is still chattering away and people still love i2hub. “It’s my baby,” he continued. “But it’s not my only child.”