BitTorrent, Buccaneers, and the Fruitless War on Internet File Sharing

Planet Earth (TFC) – Looking back on almost 25 years of cyberspace censorship, frequent imprisonment of internet “masterminds”, threats, feeble regulatory actions, numerous laws passed, thousands of lawsuits filed, and more instances of bills eagerly awaiting autographs than President Clinton at a saxophone convention..  has all this interference made any real impact on stopping or even slowing the “epidemic” that is online piracy?

Illegal distribution of media was a relatively minor concern in the days of dial-up speeds and limited digital content. Though, when media eventually converted to digital formats and internet users’ bandwidth increased exponentially, so too did the act of file sharing.

Today, almost any media file imaginable can be downloaded for free with a few clicks of a mouse. From audio and video to Ebooks, software, apps, and more recently, even blueprints and programming files for 3D printers. Making the duplication and sharing of physical objects a reality, and no longer a “What if?” Modern file sharing is more prevalent than ever, with potentially tens of millions of users that engage in file sharing using the BitTorrent protocol on a daily basis, and It’s not showing any signs of slowing.

A condensed history of digital file sharing.

File sharing has been a thing since before the bi-centennial. Debuting onto the consumer market harboring a staggering 79.7 kilobytes of digital storage capacity, the floppy disk established the first convenient means to transport digital data.

Shortly thereafter, the 80’s introduced a more compact, 3.5″ floppy disk. This new disk was no longer floppy, yet became the most sought after method for distributing and sharing digital files of it’s time. In that era, floppies came equipped with a hefty 1.4 MB worth of storage, a 1700% increase in capacity over its predecessor. This provided more than enough room to store and manage heaps of data owned by even the busiest of nerds,

A decade later, a truly remarkable thing happened —The World Wide Web was invented and changed the way the entire planet shared it’s information. Now it was possible to send any digital file to all corners of the globe. People used floppy disks for a while, but as technology progressed, storage devices followed suit.

Compact discs then emerged as the industry standard for distributing media. The music industries utilized CDs as the latest tech-savvy way to distribute music to the consumer. Personal storage of data on CDs didn’t arrive until later, but it revolutionized the world of digital file sharing. Firstly, CDs allowed much larger amounts of data to be stored, as much as 700MB. Allowing an average of 18 music files to be written to a disc. With music now digital, the advent of software to rip and copy a CD’s contents soon followed, enabling anyone to send and receive these files with one another. Another key invention that came to store shelves in 1996 was the first commercially available and affordable CD burner for the personal home computer. Now consumers could make their own music and data CDs. These early stages are what made file sharing an inviting activity to participate in, and mad ethe term “piracy” take on a whole new meaning. With very little effort, now the average person could sit in their home, and produce a duplicate of CDs they already own, or custom CDs from music files already existing on their computer. Soon bootlegged CDs hit the street corners, and the first deliberations were fastidiously being made to prevent copyright infringement through online file sharing.

With very little effort, now the average person could sit in their home, and produce a duplicate of CDs they already own, or custom CDs from music files already existing on their computer. Soon bootlegged CDs hit the street corners, and the first deliberations were fastidiously being made to prevent copyright infringement through online file sharing.

Not but a few years later, a landmark event occurred when young developer Shawn Fanning unleashed his revolutionary peer-to-peer (p2p) file sharing software “Napster” to the world. By utilizing a user-friendly interface and specializing in .mp3 music files, it was possible for nearly anyone to download virtually any song they desire, on demand. Not just that, but also share their existing music with the world as well. Sparking outrage from musicians and industry companies alike, Napster set the stage for what BitTorrent file sharing is today. 19-year-old Fanning changed the game forever, and at the time I don’t even think he could have predicted the rate at which his ideas would evolve.

What exactly is BitTorrent?

A lot of folks out there probably aren’t exactly certain what BitTorrent is, or what it does for that matter. So here’s a quick rundown:

BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer file transferring protocol. A method that allows a user of a BitTorrent client, such as uTorrent or Vuze, to share data faster and more efficiently than any other file sharing approach before it such as Napster, KaZaA, or Limewire.

The drawback to software like Limewire and similar others is that the receiver of the data is limited by the upload connection speed of the person sending the data. What BitTorrent clients do is remove that limitation by allowing an essentially unlimited number of people to connect to one another and share the same file simultaneously.

The idea behind BitTorrent is to enable massive distribution of popular files without penalizing the source with soaring bandwidth costs and overloaded servers causing crashes. The fundamental idea is to allow anyone who creates media to have the ability to make it available to the public regardless of assets, even if the data becomes highly popular.

But isn’t it illegal to use BitTorrent to obtain files?

Though BitTorrent is often viewed as being synonymous with piracy, in its essence it’s nothing more than a tool. A very useful and convenient tool in fact, which is why it’s so widely used for online piracy.

BitTorrent hasn’t been banned on the internet to this date because doing so would have worldwide adverse effects. The BitTorrent protocol has made the Internet a greatly more participatory environment. It enabled the average person to not only contribute bandwidth to share their own personal files but other people’s files as well. It also allowed any user to share very large personal files without having to pay for massive amounts of bandwidth usage.

There’s another side to the coin when it comes to its widespread use, though. Piracy is far from its only use. BitTorrent makes grabbing free, open-source software a 60-second job, instead of a 60 minute one. It’s utilized for a plethora of completely legitimate and legal purposes and in reality, without it, many content creators, organizations, and businesses would have no choice but to find alternative methods for distributing large, popular files at a higher cost.

Just a few legal uses for BitTorrent include:

  • Facebook and Twitter make use of BitTorrent for propagating large files over a huge number of different servers.
  • Gaming companies including Blizzard Entertainment use their own BitTorrent client to provide full game and update downloads. When you download one of these games, you’re actually downloading a BitTorrent client for that game that’ll do all the work for you. The game’s launcher also uses the built-in client to download updates automatically when they become available.
  • The Internet Archive preserves and distributes over a petabyte of the world’s cultural artifacts, and recommends BitTorrent to download its content, as it allows the non-profit organization to save on its bandwidth costs.
  • DJ Pretty Lights increased his site traffic by 700%, and sold out Red Rocks twice, by using BitTorrent. Many other independent and lesser known musicians use BitTorrent to distribute their music to listeners who otherwise would have never heard of them.
  • Governments, use it to make documents available to the greatest number of people, in the fastest way possible, while too saving on bandwidth costs. Over the years, the UK government released several large data sets showing how public money was being spent, and to make these available they offered them via BitTorrent.
  • Ross Maritime, a shipping agency that specializes in streamlining the passage of passenger and commercial vessels through the ports of the Gulf Coast, use “BitTorrent Sync” to keep critical documents synchronized.
  • NASA uses BitTorrent regularly to make large images available to the public, like this 2.9GB picture of the Earth.
  • Linux ISO files are also offered via BitTorrent. These distributions are free to everyone, and they’re often 1 GB or larger. BitTorrent helps Linux save on bandwidth costs, speed up downloads, and provides resources to developers.
  • BitTorrent is how independent bands like preserve performances for fans.
  • The works of Charlie Chaplin are preserved and passed down to the next generation using BitTorrent.
  • BitTorrent is what Etsy uses for search replication.
  • BitTorrent makes Einstein’s ‘Theory of Relativity’ legally available to everyone with an internet connection, you guessed it, for free.

BitTorrent has been the ideal way to distribute any large file or collection of files as fast as possible while also saving money. You don’t need an eyepatch or a peg-leg to use BitTorrent, and what’s neat is any large chunk of free data is openly available for anyone to access or distributed publicly and legally using a BitTorrent client.

20+ years of ineffectual and restrictive U.S. anti-piracy efforts

  • 1992: The Audio Home Recording Act – mandating digital audio devices had internal copy protection and imposed a “blank cd tax” in an attempt to thwart piracy.
  • 1997: The No Electronic Theft (NET) Act, increasing statutory damages for copyright infringement.
  • 1997: The recording industry went after the first MP3 players and tried to sue them out of existence, but failed. Courts concluded that “space shifting” falls under fair use.
  • 1998: The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Gave the film industry power to control the design of media devices, paving the way to link new technologies with particular Digital Rights Management (DRM) schemes. The new law prevented manufacturers from cracking the DRM, forcing them to file a license for its use, accompanied by a large set of unrelated conditions. Hence why most DVD players will refuse to fast-forward through trailers during the opening sequence of a DVD or Blu-Ray. Also under the DMCA, a licensing regime for DVD players was created, that also applies to BD players. It micro-manages the design of DVD/BD players, and companies that produce DVD/BD players without permission are subject to criminal penalties.
  • 2000: was one of the first “cloud music” services. Not a file sharing site, it allowed users to listen to their own music, and the recording industry then forced out of business. This decision likely delayed the emergence of cloud music services by a near decade.
  • 2001: The recording industry successfully forced Napster out of business.
  • The early 2000s: With widespread media driven outcry, most states adopted laws criminalizing recording movies with camcorders.
  • 2003: Individual file-sharers were now being sued by the recording industry.
  • 2004: Hollywood sued Kaleidoscope for creating a “DVD jukebox” that allowed users to rip DVDs and stream them to various devices around the house.
  • 2005: File-sharing service Grokster and several of its competitors were shut down after a drawn-out court battle.
  • 2007: Hollywood sued MP3tunes, another cloud music service created by the same man who created
  • 2008: The PRO-IP Act was passed by Congress, giving the government power to seize domain names in the United States.  The PRO-IP Act also created a new “IP Czar” position in the executive branch and increased the penalties for other copyright offenses.
  • 2010: Using the powers granted by PRO-IP, the government began seizing domains of accused pirate sites.  Resulting in numerous questionable seizures and some outright errors,
  • 2011: The extradition of a British college student for operating a “link site” was pursued by The Federal Government. His servers were not located in the United States during the time he ran the site, and nor was he.
  • 2011: Pressured by the Obama administration, major ISPs adopted a voluntary “graduated response” system.
  • 2012: SOPA/PIPA Internet Blacklist Legislation fails after worldwide protests.  Targeted toward websites that allow indiscriminate piracy. These bills were heavy with vague definitions that could have included file hosting websites, sites that discuss piracy, as well as a broad range of pages for user-generated content. Had these bills been passed five or ten years ago, YouTube might not exist today.
  • 2012: Megaupload, one of the most heavily trafficked file hosting sites in the world, was raided and shut down by the feds.
  • 2013: The Obama administration launches the Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement. Companies including 24/7 Media, Adtegrity, AOL, Condé Nast, Google, Microsoft, SpotXchange, and Yahoo! with the support of the Interactive Advertising Bureau, came together against online piracy by reducing streams of ad revenue to operators of sites engaged in significant piracy and counterfeiting.
  • 2014: Google changes its algorithms to lessen the appearance in search results of stolen content and the sites that profit from it. When copyright holders send demands over copyrighted content, Google’s algorithm pushes sites that have been flagged for a considerable amount of piracy down the rankings of its search results.
  • 2015: Trustworthy Accountability Group (TAG)-certified Anti-Piracy Services started being used by many major brands. TAG is an initiative spearheaded by the advertising industry to fight criminal activity in the supply chain within digital advertising, requiring brands and their ad partners to take aggressive steps to help fight online piracy.
  • 2016-2019: Ongoing redevelopment of the Joint Strategic Plan on Intellectual Property Enforcement

All of the items listed here seem to bring with them several unintended costs. Numerous innocent websites have been shut down. In 2009, a woman was arrested for filming a birthday party held in a movie theater. Companies producing tech with obvious non-infringing uses have often been strong-armed out of the market, and most of these enforcement efforts have cost taxpayers vast sums of money.

Too many of these attempts reflect a disproportionate focus on the interests of just a few large companies trying to add commas to their bank statements.  Copyright regulations and restrictions spanning decades still stand arbitrarily in place. Few, if any have been repealed, changed, or reformed in any significant or beneficial way.

Every effort that I mentioned above and many others that I didn’t, have yet to thwart online piracy in any clear way whatsoever. Perhaps it may be time for legislators and media industries to stop fighting this piracy fire with gasoline.

Enforcing internet piracy laws is not just difficult, it’s counterproductive.

Despite countries all around the world passing anti-piracy legislation and regulations, prosecuting them has proven to be more than just a bit difficult.

For starters, to enforce copyright laws adequately, one would need to know which country the owner of the distributed copyrighted material was from, as well as know the location of the individual downloading the suspected content. Furthermore, each country’s piracy laws vary. So gathering this information, tracking down every party and individual involved, staying within legal jurisdictions, adhering to differing laws, and then awaiting the results of a long and drawn-out lawsuit tends to break the budget and be rather time-consuming. Far too much so for it to reasonably be considered practical.

Image Source: Pascal, Flickr, Creative Commons [259/365] Pirates

Image Source: Pascal, Flickr, Creative Commons
[259/365] Pirates

With the exception of a handful of instances, such as the case involving Napster, very few internet piracy cases are ever perused, let alone end up succeeding in a court of law. Napster was sued by the RIAA, Dr. Dre, and an outraged and outspoken Lars Ulrich of Metallica. Though, after learning of the global impact that file sharing has, even Lars changed his tune.

The RIAA also sued hundreds of Napster users alleged of sharing 1,000 songs or more. Later, most cases were either settled for far lesser amounts after receiving significant negative publicity or dropped altogether. These lawsuits did inevitably force Napster into bankruptcy, only later to resurface as a legitimate resource for paid MP3 downloads.

The truth is, implementing laws to eradicate piracy is simply not feasible. The Internet in and of itself is just way too vast for any one entity, or group of entities for that matter, to accurately or efficiently police every last bit of content on every single site, 24 hours a day, until the end of time.. Or the end of the internet, whichever comes first.

On top of that, the technologically inclined amongst us are innovative, persistent, and tend to enjoy a good challenge thrown their way. With that said, it stands to reason that imposing more laws and regulations will merely provide yet another challenge for techies to overcome. More laws will undoubtedly entice people to find new and creative ways to obtain content they want, and they always will. There’s no arguing that.

Contradictory prohibition

When The Pirate Bay was taken down in 2012, In retaliation, the folks at TPB wrapped up the code that runs the entire website and offered it up as a free, downloadable file for anyone to copy and install on their servers. Within hours, people began setting up hundreds of new versions of the site. Aptly dubbed “The World’s Most Resilient BitTorrent Site”, continues to run almost uninterrupted to this very day.

After the original admins were no longer running TPB, online pirates migrated to Kickass Torrents and other sites. Kickass then took TPB’s place as the most popular torrent search engine on the web, where it continued to reign until just recently.

On July 20th, KAT was shut down and its owner was arrested. Much like TPB’S Though, a stable running copyKAT of the site was up and running mere hours after authorities had shut down the previous one.

The largest torrent meta search engine in the world, Torrentz, also bid its farewell to the world on August 4th. That site was duplicated by loyal fans as well.

This resurrection of dead websites in the internet world is commonly referred to as a “mirroring” or creating a “mirrored site.” Mirrors are exact copies of a website that has been relocated to a different address. In the name of freedom of information, mirroring a website allows for continued access to all files that were previously available on the site being censored or shut down. Mirroring is quite commonly used in this manner to preserve a site that is being disconnected or has already been shut down.

Multiple mirrors for Kickass Torrents have surfaced since it’s owners arrest, many of them partial copies lacking some of the accessibility found in the original.  A handful of Kat decoys leading to ads and pop-ups have also appeared on the web, presumably attempting to use KAT’s popularity to steal a few page visits and redirect elsewhere.

With all the commotion and URL swapping in recent weeks, The Pirate Bay has yet again reclaimed the title of world’s most trusted resource for torrent files. These measures certainly have an effect, but that effect is not snuffing out piracy.

It’s clear that restricting access to these sites is next to impossible. In fact, just in case a cataclysmic crackdown occurs on multiple URLs, there are still devoted websites like “The Unlock Project” who specializes in bypassing internet censorship and is dedicated to ensuring that popular torrent sites remain accessible to the masses. The mere fact that sites such as these even exist speaks volumes in regards to the futility of methods being used to prevent piracy. As you can imagine, mirrors have been created for these websites, too.

Anti-Piracy trolls have been trying desperately for years to defeat the mighty Hydra of file sharing. They keep cutting off its head, then declaring victory over a foe that is still very much alive and more powerful than ever.

The general rule of thumb is for every site that’s censored or taken down, several more spring up in its place. As they repeatedly have in the past, more restrictions will inadvertently create a means for nerds to improve their skill-set, and implement new ways to share media and information openly and freely. There’s always a workaround, yet this “war” continues.

Ingredients for global piracy soup:

Mix together 1 one part lack of competition, three parts low-income, two parts cheap devices and tech, finally garnish with a generous amount of high-priced media.

Piracy in lesser developed countries sometimes accounts for up to 80% of circulated media. File sharing at this degree isn’t a “global scourge,” it’s a global pricing problem. Poor countries lead the world in media piracy by a significant margin, and it’s not hard to understand why.

People who live and work in poorer countries almost exclusively pirate online media because it simply costs too much to purchase legally. A Blu-Ray movie here in America costs a person about an hour’s wage, whereas the same movie in a poor country could be equivalent to the pay of a day, or even a week’s salary. Despite this obvious reasoning, trade representatives from rich countries continue to file complaints about copyright infringement.

Many of these companies and their representatives share a common misconception that the socioeconomic means to educate citizens upon copyright standards and practices just aren’t available in emerging economies, nor are the means to enforce them. This is often referred to as lacking a “culture of copyright”, which simply isn’t the case. These notions are based on countless studies full of assumptions and unauthenticated claims made by industry companies themselves..

Making matters worse, most complaints are followed by demands to prevent unauthorized copying of material at any expense, along with threats of trade sanctions for those unable or unwilling to meet these demands.

The industries producing this media can, by all means, afford to set their prices to reflect local economies, but instead, they choose not to. The prominent concern is that a person could just fly to Mexico or Sri Lanka to buy a legit, licensed copy of some popular software or media at a drastically marked down price. Then they’d be tempted to purchase several dozen copies for their friends, or to sell on the streets. This blatant fear of arbitrage causes companies to sell their goods at first-world prices in countries full of starving people, only then to appear surprised when piracy is commonplace in these areas.

Music, global film, and software companies dominate the markets in many of these emerging economies. Though, often times those markets consist of very few, or even only one company. This lack of competition to compete for local consumers and viewers drives prices up, leading to increased piracy and yet more superfluous regulations.

There’s a big problem with this scenario. Efforts to reduce piracy have largely failed, and the big-wigs within these industries still come out ahead. This isn’t just a case of putting a Band-Aid on a broken leg as far as solutions go. The individuals implementing these so-called solutions are still collecting profits, sometimes from the poorest of people.

Keep in mind that taxpayer money from rich and poor countries alike is used to foot the bill for all the trade sanctions, measures of enforcement for new regulations, conjured up civil and criminal penalties, and also to see over and enact global treaties like the Anti-Copyright Trade Agreement (ACTA) that are more frequently being put into effect.

The industries crying “victim” are allowed to externalize the costs of their decisions to citizens worldwide. Decisions which directly increase and perpetuate higher rates of media piracy. They then proceed to reap whatever morsel of legitimate sales they can out of the markets of developing nations and go straight back to writing new mandates. How long is this going to continue?

If laws and regulations have done little to stop internet pirates, then what is the solution?

Insisting that people get their media on non-negotiable terms and strictly that way, will continue to be nothing short of futile as it’s proven to be in the past. With today’s technology, there’s virtually an unlimited variety of options and alternative methods to obtain the very same content industries wish to restrict and sell at steep prices.

So if companies clearly aren’t going to stop piracy, what can they do? Well, for starters I suggest dropping any multi-million dollar lawsuits against grandparents, quit trying to establish business models that predate the internet, abolish all of the excessive uses of DRM software, and for fuck sake, quit proposing more laws and regulations.

Personally, I think the solution for piracy is quite simple: Make content affordable and easier to obtain, and people will buy it.

That’s it.

The whole argument over pirated media is really nothing more than a matter of price and convenience. In order to make a genuine impact, new methods need to be established that discourage online piracy as opposed to banning it.

People are happy to pay for content when they’re getting what they want, we know that. The industry has the capabilities to make online piracy, as close as makes no difference, non-existent.

All they have to do is offer their sought after content at an affordable price, make it readily available, convenient to view, and deliver it according to the customer’s terms. It really is that simple.

It really is that simple.

By doing so, they essentially make the act of pirating media a pointless activity by offering a worthy alternative, thus reducing piracy to an insignificant level. Piracy will never die off entirely, but it can be fought by turning it into an unnecessary practice.

Netflix, Hulu, Spotify, and Pandora understand this and are definitely on the right track towards being successful at diminishing piracy if only just a little. The challenge the entertainment business faces is providing a better alternative to piracy that makes it just as easy for honest people to get access to the programming they desire. It’s not an impossible task, but it is going to take some effort and compromise to beat free of charge, without commercials, and on demand.

Louie set the bar high. Your move, media industries.

Almost five years ago, comedian Louis C.K single-handedly put decades of industry fears to rest with his stand-up special “Live at the Beacon Theater.”  To cut out the middle man, Louie conducted an experiment which put all of the long-held piracy claims to the test. How’d he do this? He self-funded and personally released his Beacon Theatre set for the modest price of $5 on his website, with no, that’s right NO copyright or usage restrictions whatsoever.

In a statement posted on his website shortly after the release Louie explained:

“The experiment was: if I put out a brand new standup special at a drastically low price ($5) and make it as easy as possible to buy, download and enjoy, free of any restrictions, will everyone just go and steal it? Will they pay for it? And how much money can be made by an individual in this manner?”

The results spoke for themselves. Within two weeks, the special had been purchased and downloaded over 200,000 times, amounting to over $1 million in sales. Considering that he estimated production and other costs to be around $250,000 it’s fair to say Louie’s experiment was more than a success, it was an iron-clad example of how to give your audience what they desire being beneficial for both parties involved.

In regards to what he had profited after expenses in just those first two weeks, Louie said:

“…[the profit] is less than I would have been paid by a large company to simply perform the show and let them sell it to you, but they would have charged you about $20 for the video. They would have given you an encrypted and regionally restricted video of limited value, and they would have owned your private information for their own use. They would have withheld international availability indefinitely. This way, you only paid $5, you can use the video any way you want, and you can watch it in Dublin, whatever the city is in Belgium, or Dubai. I got paid nice, and I still own the video (as do you). You never have to join anything, and you never have to hear from us again.”

If you’re asking me, that’s absolutely the way things should be.

A moderately recognized stand-up comedian proved that with the proper approach, online piracy can be dealt with efficiently. He demonstrated this by selling content at a universally affordable price and completely free of any DRM restrictions. He then courteously asked the people of the internet to purchase and not pirate his special.

In doing so, not only was he hugely successful, but he built a lasting relationship of mutual trust and respect with his fans. To this day, he continues to use this method to deliver content to his fans, even setting the price on sometimes at “Choose your own.” This unorthodox approach has undeniably been proven to work and widely praised. There’s no question these methods should have been adopted by media industry companies years ago, so the question remains: Why haven’t they?

The time has long passed for these companies and executives to make their move. It’s imperative that the industry come to grips with their only remaining option, and that is to conform to the interests of the consumer. The corporate executives and legislators responsible for all this unnecessary turmoil will be just fine. It’s the people who keep these companies afloat that always suffer.

One thing is certain, though, until things change and we all stop being subjected to the adverse effects of copyright law and restrictions, artists will continue to suffer, developers will keep hitting road blocks, and paying customers around the world will seek the content they want elsewhere, perhaps even for free.




This article was written by Clint Peterson for The Fifth Column.