Wired shines a light on the DarkNet.

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.

4 thoughts on “Wired shines a light on the DarkNet.

  1. Well, a former close friend of mine* was caught running one of those warez-servers last year. It was a pretty big story actually (look for +unreality +germany +gvu on google if you want to read more about it, though most is in German).

    I knew that he was running such a thing, and sometimes I had gotten games or movies from him (not often enough to want or get access to the actual server, thankfully).

    But I hadn’t expected the server to be 11 TERAbytes big, and apparently one of the biggest (if not the biggest) ‘warez’-server worldwide.

    Well, he actually got off pretty lighty, legal-wise (he’s got a conviction on his name now, though) and spent only two weeks or so in jail. But it cost him a lot of money to pay the laywer and the court costs, and he lost his job over it (well, he was so stupid as to do it on company time and, as far as I know he even registered the server in the company’s name).

    Shows that they are not really invulnerable. He told me a little bit about his security procedures (in the time before our friendship broke apart), and he said that all the traffic was hidden and stuff (I don’t really understand all THAT much about it). But obviously you can’t hide that amount of data perfectly, and still gve 400 people access to it.

    The interesting thing is that he probably still believes he never did something *really* wrong. You know, just a hobby (with 11 terabytes, a server costing many thousands of Euros – right!). The guy spent hours and hours hiding his stuff from the authorities, and he tells other people he just got a little carried away? Sure.

    He can be happy that the copyright authorities apparently won’t press any civil case against him.

    *BTW – our friendship broke apart not over this thing itself, but rather over the way he dealt with it later on. He was pretty pissed and blamed me too, because I had not called him up once the story broke (he was on holiday right then, while I read it on the news that a guy with his initials and the same internet nickname was being wanted for piracy).

    Anyway, he now lives on my taxes, unemployed, even though his parents have offered him jobs with family friends several times (I know from mutual friends). But he prefers to party and collect the dole (which is still pretty ample in Germany, if you previously made good money). THATS why I can’t stand him anymore.

    Okay, another long comment, but I guess some of you might find it interesting.

  2. I thought I’d respond a comment from the thread “Popular Science explains why you can’t backup your DVDs” here instead, since its probably more relevent here.

    In brief, Tom wrote:

    How is copying an idea theft?
    Since when is an “idea” property, like a car?

    The MPAA and RIAA didn’t exist for thousands of years, and still artists
    managed to survive.  Wonder how that worked?

    Tom also brings up the founding fathers, and how they never intended for copyright laws to be used and abused the way they are today.

    To begin with, I think Tom is deperately trying to rationalize theft by poorly claiming it is not theft at all.

    While downloading “copies” is not the same as stealing a car or other tangible, physical item, even the “founding fathers” would agree that by downloading someone’s work that you would have otherwise paid for, is theft.

    In “founding father” terms, illegal downloading of films would be akin to someone sneaking into a theatre without paying admission, or even stowing away on a train or boat for passage. Is anyone actually “harmed” by either action? No. But its still theft.

    Movies, games, and music, are in almost all cases made by people and companies who are paid to make them. They are paid by people who INVEST in the resulting product, with the good faith that the product will attract enough paying customers as to make a RETURN ON INVESTMENT. They even have to spend money to promote the product, so that people know about it in the first place.

    Personally, I used to justify downloading most products illegally because I was typically getting songs I couldn’t find elsewhere, and that I ended up spending a lot more money on CDs in return. That was when I had dial up. That was before I started using Bit Torrent.

    Now I’m downloading movies I planned on seeing in theatres. I’m downloading CDs that I could have easily purchased from Amazon.

    I’m reaping the benefit and enjoyment of the products that people spent millions of dollars, and hours of work, making.

    Its theft. I may not feel guilt, but I know its still theft.

  3. “I think Tom is deperately trying to rationalize theft by poorly claiming it is not theft at all. “

    There is a fine line between trying to say something is ok, and saying two crimes can’t be correct. In this case, Tom is correct. Copyright Infringement is that – illegal copying, not actual stealing because you ton’t seize control of a physical medium depriving somebody of the same. Is it right? Not really, but saying they are different IS NOT saying the crime is OK.

  4. “The so-called religious organizations which now lead the war against the teaching of evolution are nothing more, at bottom, than conspiracies of the inferior man against his betters.”

    —H. L. Mencken, “Homo Neanderthalensis” (commentary on the Scopes trial), The Baltimore Evening Sun, June 29, 1955

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