There’s an article up on Wired that does a good job of showing how copies of the latest blockbuster movie become available on the Internet often before they’ve been released into theaters. It’s a four page essay on the warez scene which has been around since modems first started to become widespread back in the early 80s and it shows the real source of the MPAA and RIAA’s headaches.
Just over a year ago, a hacker penetrated the corporate servers at Valve, the game company behind the popular first-person shooter Half-Life. He came away with a beta version of Half-Life 2. “We heard about it,” says 23-year-old Frank, a well-connected media pirate. “Everyone thought it would get bootlegged in Europe.” Instead, the hacker gave the source code to Frank – it turned out that he was a friend of a friend – so that Frank could give Half-Life 2 to the world. “I was like, ‘Let’s do this thing, yo!’” he says. “I put it on Anathema. After that, it was all over.”
Anathema is a so-called topsite, one of 30 or so underground, highly secretive servers where nearly all of the unlicensed music, movies, and videogames available on the Internet originate. Outside of a pirate elite and the Feds who track them, few know that topsites exist. Even fewer can log in.
Within minutes of appearing on Anathema, Half-Life 2 spread. One file became 30 files became 3,000 files became 300,000 files as Valve stood helplessly by watching its big Christmas blockbuster turn into a lump of coal. The damage was irreversible – the horse was out of the barn, the county, and the state. The original Half-Life has sold more than 10 million games and expansion packs since its late 1998 release. Half-Life 2’s official release finally happened in November, after almost a year of reprogramming.
When Frank (who, like all the pirates interviewed for this article, is identified by a pseudonym) posted the Half-Life 2 code to Anathema, he tapped an international network of people dedicated to propagating stolen files as widely and quickly as possible.
It’s all a big game and, to hear Frank and others talk about “the scene,” fantastic fun. Whoever transfers the most files to the most sites in the least amount of time wins. There are elaborate rules, with prizes in the offing and reputations at stake. Topsites like Anathema are at the apex. Once a file is posted to a topsite, it starts a rapid descent through wider and wider levels of an invisible network, multiplying exponentially along the way. At each step, more and more pirates pitch in to keep the avalanche tumbling downward. Finally, thousands, perhaps millions, of copies – all the progeny of that original file – spill into the public peer-to-peer networks: Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus. Without this duplication and distribution structure providing content, the P2P networks would run dry. (BitTorrent, a faster and more efficient type of P2P file-sharing, is an exception. But at present there are far fewer BitTorrent users.)
It’s nothing new to those of us who’ve been around since the days of Bulletin Board Systems, but it makes for a fascinating read just the same. A lot of folks are under the misconception that the P2P Networks are the source of all piracy because that’s where the MPAA and RIAA are always focusing their attention, but the truth is that those networks are the lowest rung of the ladder and shutting them down wouldn’t eliminate piracy. The article points out that the P2P networks would pretty much dry up if the folks at the top that provide the material in the first place could be stopped.
The entertainment industry is perfectly aware of all this so you might be wondering why they spend so much time and effort hacking at the feet of the beast rather than trying to chop of its head. Well they are trying to get the folks at the top, but haven’t had great success at it and they pretty much learned to live with a certain level of piracy decades ago. There’s a lot of work involved in becoming a trusted member of “the scene” and that acts as a natural filter that limits the number of people involved in it. Most folks just don’t have the motivation to go through all that bother just to get Spiderman 2 for free. The P2P networks, however, make it easy to engage in a little piracy. Login, search for your favorite band or movie, double click on a file name or two, and then sit back and wait. With the constant flood of new stuff from the folks in the warez scene it’s not hard to find what you’re looking for and with ease of use comes increased temptation. You can amass a collection of tens of thousands of MP3s within a matter of days and, assuming you share the files you get, you contribute to making it that much easier for others to be tempted.
In short, the P2P Networks make it too easy to be a pirate and that’s why they garner so much attention. The same is true of other tools that have fallen victim to the entertainment industry’s lawyers. The makers of DVD XCopy were sued into bankruptcy before the courts could rule on whether the software was legal because their software made it too easy to copy DVDs on your PC. This hasn’t stopped the truly motivated folks from copying DVDs with their PCs as there are plenty of tools to do that with, but they’re not available for purchase from your local Best Buy and they’re not as easy to use. The entertainment industry would love to eliminate all piracy, but they know that’s not going to happen so the goal becomes one of limiting it as much as possible and any tool that makes piracy push-button easy may as well paint a big bullseye on itself regardless of whether or not it has non-infringing uses. “Ease of use” are the words that give entertainment execs nightmares.
Looks like the Associated Press has picked up and distributed a condensed version of this article as CNN.com has it as well.