Hollywood's no.1 headache
The American Motion Picture Association has gone to war against the leading file-sharing Web sites. But there are plenty of others to keep the Internet pirates happy
As far as G. - a serial downloader of American TV series not broadcast in Israel - is concerned, one of the frequent crashes of the SuprNova.org Web site three weeks ago turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
She called up this writer in dejection reporting that the site "was no longer there." After being informed of a few alternatives to SuprNova - a well-known BitTorrent file-sharing site - she went off to pursue her pirate voyage. But even before G. had a chance to type them in, SuprNova was up and working again. No one could have known that less than two weeks later, the site would drop off the face of the Internet and would send hundreds of thousands of pirate-file junkies on a desperate search for a new home to slake their download thirst.
Last Sunday, after the old homepage of SuprNova.org was replaced by a gloomy message that the site was "closing down for good," due to threats of a lawsuit from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) - which viewed it as a platform for the violation of creative rights - I did not hear back from G. I assumed that, like many other citizens of the Internet world, she was mourning the demise of the beloved site. But the next day, when I called to ask how she was getting on, she was busy watching an episode of "Smallville" she'd downloaded a few hours earlier from Torrentreactor.net - her new home on the Internet.
Like G., two or three days after the sudden disappearance of SuprNova and similar sites, many armchair pirates of the Internet had returned. The overnight closure of SuprNova, Torrentbits.org, Phoenix Torrents, N4P.com and another hundred or so sites seemingly dealt a harsh blow to the downloading community that employs BitTorrent software. But names of other sites that were not closed down were quickly passed through word of mouth (via Internet), and the mass downloading continued as if nothing had happened.
If in the past few years file-sharing services such as Napster, AudioGalaxy, iMesh and Kazaa have grabbed the media's attention due to the struggle waged by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) against them, BitTorrent has in the past year become the number one headache of Hollywood. The figures (if they are to be believed) are astounding. According to a report from early December, the transfer of information through BitTorrent was responsible for a third of all data transfer on the Internet. Even if this figure seems a little exaggerated, anyone who uses software knows it serves for the transfer of terabytes upon terabytes of information daily.
On sites like SuprNova, users can easily find almost every movie, TV series, computer game or album. After downloading a tiny Torrent (a file of a few dozen kilobytes that links their computer with computers of other users now downloading the file), the party begins. Files of several hundred megabytes, or even gigabytes, fly in with dizzying speed.
BitTorrent is a protocol designed for file transfer that is built upon a peer-to-peer system: Its users link directly to one another, sending and receiving parts of the files. Nevertheless, BitTorrent does use a central server (known as a tracker) that regulates user activity. But the tracker only administers the links of the users to one another, without any connection to the content of the files they are exchanging. Therefore, a large number of users can make use of a relatively limited bandwidth of the tracker.
The main idea behind BitTorrent is that the users of the protocol have to upload data at the same time as they are downloading data, and therefore the bandwidth of the Internet is taken optimal advantage of. As opposed to other file-sharing networks, BitTorrent is planned such that it works most effectively in direct proportion to the number of users interested in a certain file. The method works especially well with large files, such as films, which explains the MPAA's attack on the trackers.
The man behind BitTorrent is Bram Cohen, 29, from Bellevue, Washington. Cohen wrote the protocol in 2001, when the shattering of the dot-com bubble left him unemployed, in the belief that Internet users would be happy to use an efficient on-line system to distribute content. "It seemed obvious that many people are interested in using the protocol for licentious piracy," Cohen said in several interviews last week, "but as far as it relates to me, the users are simply pushing and receiving bits - which bits they are pushing and receiving is really not my business. I can't do a lot about it. If people use the protocol on machines over which I have no control, what exactly do they want me to do about it?"
The MPAA doesn't necessarily accept this argument. A senior executive of the association, John Malcolm, refused to say last week if the organization was considering a lawsuit against Cohen, but he did say, "Everyone who uses BitTorrent and thinks he is remaining anonymous and protected is making a big mistake. There is no reason that we will not sue users of this software, as well, just as we have sued users of other programs."
Attorney Fred von Lohmann, the man who heads the defensive efforts of the users and the file-sharing services, acting for the Electronic Frontier Foundation - a nonprofit association that promotes freedom of expression on the Internet - says the only thing that surprises him about the MPAA's attack on the BitTorrent sites is that it took this long.
"In my opinion, the decision to move against BitTorrent now is due to the recent reports showing that it is the most popular file-sharing program around," he said in a telephone interview from San Francisco. "It's no surprise. As in the case of the struggle of the record industry against the file-sharing programs, we are seeing that they focus their attack each time against the most popular program in the market at that time. At the beginning, it was Napster, and then Aimster and then AudioGalaxy and then Scour. This is the continuation of the same trend: They notice you and they sue you only when you're really big."
Von Lohmann feels Cohen has no reason to be concerned. He believes the MPAA has no interest in being dragged into a fundamental lawsuit against the developers, similar to that which MGM Studios is waging against Grokster - a suit that will be heard soon by the U.S. Supreme Court. He argues that it is much simpler for them to threaten suit against the operators that link between the pirates and who host the torrents of the files that they download and upload. The costs of the legal struggle against an organization like the MPAA, he says, causes anyone who has received a letter threatening a lawsuit to turn off the switch.
Nevertheless, von Lohmann stresses, BitTorrent users need not worry. "Even if they close down more and more trackers, the speed will perhaps be slightly reduced and the users will move on to other site, but they will continue to use the software. If the attack continues, they will always be able to move on to other services that will undoubtedly spring up, or perhaps someone will change the program, which is an open-code program, and will create something entirely new from it."
In any event, G. can rest easy. It is still uncertain where she will be downloading episodes of the next season of "The Sopranos," but you can be sure that her encounter with Tony, Silvio and the other guys will take place on the screen of her computer, not on Channel 2.