Although the Internet has raised many cultural and social questions, perhaps more than any communications medium yet invented by humankind, the problems it has caused for the financial value of traditional content are some of the most profound. Crowd-sourced information, user-generated content, and blogging have radically undermined the value of professional work, with resonances across the media industry. The excellent documentary Page One provides a snapshot of how this has affected one of the most respected brands in journalism, The New York Times. From the point of view of traditional media powerhouses, however, content piracy is the biggest threat of all. The dramatic demise of Napster has now gone down in the annals of history as a watershed moment. This was the 2001 event when the music industry woke up to the fact that online culture was very different from what had gone before. The industry’s knee-jerk reaction was to take down the opposition, and a few years later legitimate music sharing services arrived, which have been quite successful.
But Napster was only the beginning. It may have been a wakeup call for the media industry, but it also woke the opposing forces from their slumber. New peer-to-peer systems were born, which were much harder for content owners to shut down using the law. First there was KaZaa and other peer-to-peer networks, then the BitTorrent system created by Bram Cohen arrived. Napster had proven vulnerable because it kept a database of shared files, so it couldn’t be argued that those running the system didn’t know what was being shared. KaZaa and BitTorrent are much more decentralised. Figures in 2007 showed that nearly half of those using BitTorrent file sharing were downloading TV shows, and over 15 per cent more other types of video. So although music may have been at the vanguard, faster Internet connections have allowed video to take its place.
Many global hit TV shows are made in the US. They also usually air there sometimes a whole season before they are syndicated internationally. Since kudos comes to those who see something before their friends, the urge to obtain new episodes early is very great. This is not driven by a desire to save money, although that helps. Most of these shows will be available on free-to-air TV channels eventually anyway. The impetus comes from wanting to see episodes before everyone else – to lead the trend, and break the news. The story with pirate movies is a little different. Although here there will also be the desire to see a film before it is released in the local market, the price of DVDs and cinema tickets is more of a factor.
The TV and film industries have had some success closing a number of the websites which help BitTorrent users find the files they want, such as the infamous Suprnova.org. High profile prosecutions of file sharers have been used as scare tactics. At the time of writing, the infamous Piratebay had just been made inaccessible via the majority of UK Internet service providers. But they are fighting a losing battle. Soon after the Piratebay had been rendered directly inaccessible in the UK, a list of alternative mirror sites appeared, making the same illegal content just a Google search away.
The Internet has pushed boundaries because it has actually amplified something we have taken for granted for decades, rather than introducing something entirely new. Making a cassette mix tape of your favourite music for a friend never really felt like stealing. Neither did recording a TV programme on VHS and lending it to your neighbour. But both acts technically break UK copyright law. Fortunately, these seemingly innocuous little thefts remained limited, and impossible to track. So they went unpunished. But the Internet has changed all that. The music industry blames depressed sales figures on sharing of music online, and the movie industry is hitting individuals with fines so large you would think they had committed serial mass murder. The Motion Picture Agency of America (www.mpaa.org) has gone so far as to describe the current situation as a ‘Global Avalanche of Internet Piracy’.
A brief history of online theft
The arrival of the Internet did not automatically result in the unparalleled levels of piracy we see today. But the potential has always been there. Right from the early days, private FTP sites and the Usenet newsgroup system have been used to exchange illicit content, in particular pornography and cracked software. This dates back well into the mid-1990s. But although these methods of illicit distribution were considered a problem, they didn’t warrant today’s headlines.
Aside from the fact that 1990s file sharing didn’t involve music and movies to the extent it does now, it wasn’t exactly on a public scale either. Sharing over Usenet involves splitting up files into segments, and putting these online as separate posts. For a really large file or archive of files, there can be literally hundreds of segments. Every single one must be downloaded to reconstitute the original, which is extremely fiddly. If you miss a segment on Usenet, finding a replacement will be a tedious waiting game until someone posts the entire set again. Few people can be bothered, and for this reason Usenet has never caught on for mainstream piracy.
Pirate FTP sites are even more exclusive. Due to the extremely illegal nature of the files hosted, the locations and username information of these sites are closely guarded secrets, only passed around a trusted group. Again, this isn’t wide-scale theft. It’s limited to elite sharers only. The FTP model remains the top of the pyramid in online piracy today. So although online piracy arrived with the Internet, for years it remained a shady area inhabited mainly by obsessive collectors. This was exacerbated by the fact that you need the patience of a saint to download anything significant over a modem connection. But online piracy is no longer a niche for the highly computer literate. Many people now expect to see the latest episodes of hit series via their computers long before they ever reach the TV screen. The practice is hardly viewed as illegal, being considered as almost the same as lending a VHS or DVD to a friend.
Two factors have contributed to the ‘avalanche’. One is peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, and the other broadband. Both tackle the performance problem, although P2P has also made prosecution much more tricky. The benefits of broadband are obvious, but as fast as it may be there is one drawback – the upstream bandwidth is always many times smaller than the downstream. So broadband is not much good for sharing your files to lots of people. This is where P2P technology comes in. If lots of people are trying to get hold of the same file, they can contribute the bits they have downloaded already to other downloaders. The small amount of upstream bandwidth each one contributes can then be combined to make faster downloads for everyone.
This capability of P2P technology is what has taken file sharing from the shady fringes out into the mainstream. The first popularisation of P2P has now become virtual legend, with Napster’s demise at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) considered strike one to the content establishment. After Napster’s closure, however, services like KaZaA (formerly at www.kazaa.com), Limewire (formerly at www.limewire.com) and eDonkey2000 (formerly at www.edonkey2000.com) took over. But the real P2P revolution was the introduction of the BitTorrent protocol. Unlike other systems, BitTorrent can operate without a central computer coordinating the download. This makes it virtually impossible to locate the originator of a file from the Torrent file stream itself, and takes the onus away from the site hosting the Torrent location file as well.
Even with these “trackerless” BitTorrents, users still need to download a Torrent file to know where other peers and seeds are located on the Internet. This is generally performed by a simple database-driven website, with tools so visitors can search for the file they want, which will then give them a list of Torrent options. These BitTorrent websites have become the new frontier of piracy. Most famous amongst them was Suprnova.org, run by Andrej Preston, also known as Sloncek. At the end of 2004, a major crackdown by the Moving Picture Association of America (MPAA) caused many of the popular BitTorrent sites to shut of their own accord, including Suprnova.org. But instead of killing off BitTorrent-based piracy, attention merely turned to Swedish site The Pirate Bay (http://thepiratebay.org), which has been cheekily cocking its snoot at copyright holders ever since, and Mininova (www.mininova.org), which became the most popular BitTorrent site of all.
But these two headliners were hardly alone. As one site was removed from action, another emerged to take its place. Despite aggressive legal suits, BitTorrent sites proliferated, and looked increasingly bold and mainstream. They were also joined by websites which simply streamed video content, such as the now-defunct QuickSilverScreen (http://quicksilverscreen.com/), alluc.org (www.alluc.org) and Veoh (www.veoh.com). Even DivX’s Stage6 (www.stage6.com) and Google Video (video.google.com) were used to host illegal video, and copyright-infringing material still regularly appears on YouTube (www.youtube.com), until the copyright holders ask for it to be removed. Viacom famously filed a $1 billion lawsuit against YouTube in March 2007, which many considered to be the beginning of the end for the site. The lawsuit involved 160,000 clips with more than 1.5 billion views, but didn’t result in the death of YouTube. In contrast, the BBC entered into a licensing deal instead, as have a few other content owners.
Peer-to-peer technology isn’t intrinsically bad. From a technological view it’s just a clever way of maximising the utility of asymmetric Internet bandwidth, and has been used to power entirely legitimate video services like Joost (www.joost.com, which was “On Pause” at the time of writing). But what is more surprising is just how mainstream the pirate sites began to look. Most started to carry advertising – and not just for pornography and online dating services. Some of this was very mainstream indeed. Mininova has hosted adverts for the Tesco supermarket and Alliance & Leicester building society. Yet scroll down the site and you were able to access BitTorrents of the latest Hollywood blockbuster movies.
In 2007, Mininova’s Business Development Director, Niek van der Maas, explained how the site managed this strange balancing act between mainstream advertiser appeal and large-scale content piracy: ‘We do not infringe any copyright. Torrent files clearly aren’t copyrighted. Besides that, many corporations have no problem targeting 29 million unique tech-savvy users (per month).’ Der Maas’s comments highlight two important features of online piracy, making it a particular thorn in the side of content owners. On the one hand, sites like Mininova don’t host any pirate content themselves – just the means to find it and access it from elsewhere. Similarly, sites like Alluc.org act as a portal aggregating links to other streaming video sites. No ISP we know of has been successfully prosecuted for hosting Usenet groups used for distributing illegal content, although some choose not to host these groups. BitTorrent sites can similarly argue that they are merely a communications medium, although that argument didn’t work for Napster, and clearly has been used against Piratebay.
But on the other hand, these sites can command a very powerful body of consumers. In 2007, Mininova had become the 53rd most popular website in the world and Veoh was 75th, according to Web information company Alexa (www.alexa.com), although both have dropped considerably since then. Just as cassette tapes and VHS pitted equipment manufacturers against content owners, online piracy has done the same with Internet technology companies. However, visitors to pirate websites are already in the habit of not paying for things, so they are not the best of customers. For this reason, U2’s manager Paul McGuinness has attacked the technology industry for a perceived lack of social responsibility in turning a blind eye to the issue of piracy.
Music is clearly no longer the main focus of attention for online piracy. Instead, video has taken its place. Movies and TV series are the new stock in trade, and not just as downloads, but streamed from video sharing sites. Even Google is great for finding torrents – just chuck in the name of what you’re looking for plus the word torrent. This shows how mainstream torrenting has become, and could be seen as a sign that people are naturally thieves, a theory backed up by the infamous Tragedy of Commons argument. But it could also hint that content owners are not meeting people’s needs. Although music files are still readily shared, the arrival of legitimate online services such as iTunes and Spotify gave the mainstream music consumer far less reason to bother with piracy. UK pop group Radiohead’s giving away of its album In Rainbows in 2007 also showed that people do value music enough to pay for it even if they don’t have to, with a significant proportion of downloaders choosing to pay for the album voluntarily. US musich group Nine Inch Nails found success with a similar strategy for its Ghosts I-IV.
When questioned, heavy users don’t cite the fact that content is free as the main reason for downloading it illegally. When questioned anonymously, interviewees explain that illegal content can be moved much more easily between devices, allowing it to be viewed when and how the user wants. Content recorded onto a PVR box generally can’t be transferred beyond that device, and a video disc, either DVD or Blu-ray, can’t legally be transferred to a portable player, it must be viewed with a device sporting the requisite drive. Online systems such as BBC’s iPlayer have alleviated this a little, as most devices with a fast enough Internet connection now have a native player and can view content, with the BBC allegedly encoding every programme into 23 different formats to cope with the plethora of viewing platforms. It’s also possible to download content for viewing offline, although not on all platforms. You can’t watch BBC iPlayer content on the underground or in a plane via a mobile phone, for example.
The lack of ability to preview content from DVD shops or at the cinema is also cited as a reason to download. In other words, convenience is at least as important as getting stuff for free. TV companies are catching up with this, with all the main UK channels offering some form of online on-demand service at the time of writing. Apple’s iTunes service also offers a host of TV series for download, as do the major DVD rental companies Lovefilm and Netflix. But all of these are highly restrictive next to a movie file you can copy (or transer via another format) to any device you want, or streaming video you can watch on any Internet-connected computer.
Nevertheless, although loads of video is widely available from the mainstream, openly accessible BitTorrent sites, the structure of piracy hasn’t changed radically since the early days. Top of the tree, where the most exclusive files appear first, are still the private FTP sites. The BitTorrent websites with the most illicit, high quality content are also by invitation only. A member needs to achieve a certain ‘ratio’ of uploading to downloading before they can invite others.
But the rewards of membership can be enormous, and the service available well beyond the hit-or-miss that users of public P2P networks like KaZaa had to endure. Virtually everything broadcast in the US in high definition except sports can be found on sites like HDBits.org, which is invitation-only. There is some sports, but this clearly doesn’t appeal to the users as there isn’t much of it there. So the content available mainly includes movies and TV series – grabbed live from TV via HDTV computer capture devices. Even Sky’s HD service has been ripped using satellite TV tuner cards.
But content ripped from Blu-ray disc is also readily available. Any Blu-ray release will be immediately posted online as soon as discs become available, in multiple formats, including special versions for the Xbox360 gaming console. Both the now-discontinued HD-DVD and Blu-ray were cracked in January 2007 by a hacker known as Muslix64. Blu-ray discs with BD+ security proved a little harder to rip, but even this extra level of security fell to the cracker’s ingenuity in November 2007. Since then, user-friendly tools such as Slysoft’s AnyDVD HD (www.slysoft.com/en/anydvdhd.html) have arrived with the ability to remove the AACS protection from any HD-DVD or Blu-ray disc.
The same thing is likely to happen to any content protection system, including the draconian hardware-based Digital Rights Management systems which have regularly been proposed. If protection schemes are too restrictive regarding what can be done with content that has been legitimately purchased, they will simply drive users further towards unrestricted, but illegal distribution systems instead. Traditionally, content owners only controlled the means of producing and reproducing content. But in the Internet era they have seen the need to control the act of consumption as well – how and where you watch or listen – to maintain or even increase their profits. Online piracy has been depicted by its proponents as the realm where the fight against that control is taking place. Interestingly, the writers’ strike in the US in 2007/8 was about the same issue, but from a different perspective. Content distribution companies were refusing to share the profits from new online channels with writers.
Content owners continue to take the ‘big stick’ approach to piracy, trying terror tactics to discourage both websites and users. Decoy files containing false or broken content have also been seeded into P2P systems, to frustrate downloaders. At the same time, the pirate sites had been trying to become as legitimate as possible, presumably to strengthen the argument that piracy is not the real focus of their business. For example, Mininova launched a “Content Distribution” service (http://www.mininova.org/distribution), which allowed indy producers to share their content without any costs.
There have been some signs that major content owners were starting to realise that they needed to lure consumers back to the legal distribution channels, rather than simply scare them away from the illegal ones. Ann Sweeney, president of Disney-ABC Television Group, famously stated in 2006: ‘We understand now that piracy is a business model. It exists to serve a need in the market for consumers who want TV content on demand. Pirates compete the same way we do – through quality, price and availability. We don’t like the model but we realise it’s competitive enough to make it a major competitor going forward.’
However, realising the true nature of the threat is one thing. Broadcasters and movie distributers have still done too little to provide services which are at least as convenient as what is available from BitTorrent and streaming sites, and they have shown limited innovation or vision. Despite increasingly sophisticated Digital Rights Management (DRM), content owners have had little success preventing file sharing by technical means. But they are also hoping the brute force approach will do the job instead. After successfully shutting down the original Napster service, organisations such as the RIAA and MPAA have focused on threats of prosecution as a deterrent. This has often been more hot air than real danger, particularly across international borders, as the unsuccessful attempts to shut down The Pirate Bay have shown, including the unsuccessful locking out of the site from UK Internet services in 2012. Although eDonkey2000 itself ended up settling with the RIAA to the tune of $30 million, the ED2K network it spawned remained operational afterwards.
But if the attempts to eliminate the distribution networks haven’t exactly succeeded, the content owners have tried the even more heavy-handed tactic of going after individual sharers. On 4th October 2007, the US legal system found Jammie Thomas guilty of sharing 24 music files over the KaZaA system, and ordered her to pay $222,000 in compensation. This test case set a precedent, sending shockwaves through the file sharing community, and probably had the desired effect of instilling terror. But only temporarily.
Jammie Thomas was caught by a company called MediaSentry, which is employed by a number of trade associations and corporations to track the Internet addresses of file sharers. Although a user’s full identity is anonymous online, peer-to-peer networks need a computer’s Internet address to function, which can be used to trace users. This doesn’t automatically leave a user open to prosecution, though, as the Internet service provider will need to be willing to translate the Internet address into a user’s identity. Not every provider will do this immediately, particularly as the practices of companies like MediaSentry remain controversial. International borders will also slow the identification process.
Only huge file sharers, or the dramatically unlucky, are likely to fall foul of prosecution, as there aren’t enough legal resources to take on all the millions of file sharers that are active around the world. The chances can be reduced further with the right precautions, too. Software tools such as PeerGuardian block a list of Internet addresses used by the opponents of peer-to-peer sharing, compiled by Blocklist.org. The Azureus BitTorrent client has a SafePeer plugin which uses the same data. It’s not foolproof, but significanty reduces the chance of being caught.
Piracy has become a game of cat-and-mouse, and one which the cat is mostly losing, despite the odd high-profile catch. This has made it another factor driving online video content in a different direction to traditional formats, where piracy is less possible or not even relevant. The movie industry has put its faith in 3D, which is essentially impossible to pirate using a camcorder in a cinema, and potentially gives back film the sense of occasion which makes it worth going out to see it in a theatre.
But rather than railing against piracy and trying to prevent it from occurring, it should be possible to create content that takes the sharing tendency into account. After all, YouTube has made sharing part of its business model from the outset. Even commercial enterprises like ChannelFlip, described in the previous chapter, don’t necessarily lose from piracy, because the sponsorship message is embedded alongside the content. With a method for tracking the number of views, piracy could even make content more valuable. In the next chapter, the argument turns to how content can be produced which takes advantage of social sharing, viral qualities, and piracy.