Features | The revolution will be streamed online

The Link’s Alex Chinien takes a second look at the file-sharing furor

I think that if I had walked into the offices of Time Warner 10 years ago and chatted with the board of directors about the future of the company, I would have been surprised by their response.

First, high fives and pats on the back would go all around when I told them that, by the year 2008, their empire would include AOL, New Line Cinema, CNN, TBS, HBO and over a hundred magazines. And second, when I told them that it would not only be easy but socially acceptable to illegally distribute virtually all of their copyrighted material for free, they might just take back the $65 glass of scotch they would have by now undoubtedly offered.

Yet here we are in the midst of the year 2008, and it seems that media conglomerates are struggling harder than ever to play catch-up to the worldwide proliferation of online file-sharing. Their growing desperation permeates the air – and grows with each unsuccessful attempt to enforce one copyright law after another.

Bite-sized bits

Websites like OiNK, TV Links, and Demonoid are the most recent casualties in a growing conflict between media conglomerates and an emerging global file-sharing culture. These sites are also the faces of a growing population which views copyright infringement as harmless, something of a victimless crime.

And as the size of the conglomerate cookie jar grows, the wrongdoing of copyright infringement seems to diminish. The question must be: “When does the file-sharer cease to be morally reprehensible and become a modern-day Robin Hood?”

The most widespread method of file-sharing at the moment is BitTorrent, or torrents. The torrents work in a basic way: a file being shared is split into many small pieces that are downloaded from multiple users, who are seeding or uploading the file. That means the beginning of your movie could come from an office in Japan, the middle from a school in India and the end from a dirt farm in Connecticut.

As a result of their widespread proliferation, dozens of torrent web sites everywhere have been targeted and shut down within the last few months. In fact, torrents have become so popular with college students that U.S. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid recently tried to pass an amendment that would have required all colleges and universities to use anti-piracy software to catch their own students downloading copyright material, in exchange for federal funding.

The proposed amendment also called for the Department of Education to annually identify the universities and colleges who received the most written complaints about illegal downloads from copyright owners. The amendment drew outrage from educational institutions all over America, a group which has long been known for its opposition to federal “conditions on cash.”

This unforeseen controversy saw Reid, with his proverbial tail between his legs, quickly replacing the bill with a diluted version. Colleges now must add the consequences of copyright infringement to the myriad required literature that students already don’t read.

The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) claimed it as a victory. Their successes have been so few and far between lately that they actually called the resulting amendment a “major step” toward reducing media piracy. The MPAA estimates that movie piracy among students accounts for over half a billion dollars of loss to the U.S. industry.

Closing in on the piglets

BitTorrent file-sharing has become, for many of its users, an online community. Several well-known online personalities have emerged. Alan Ellis, named one of Blender magazine’s top 25 most influential people in online music, is the creator of OiNK.

OiNK was a members-only torrent web site shrouded in secrecy and heralded by its users as one of the most innovative methods of music distribution of all time. On October 23, 2007, a coalition led by Interpol, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, and the British Phonographic Industry carried out its plans to shut down the web site.

British police raided 24-year-old Ellis’s home and arrested him, while the Dutch police confiscated OiNK servers in Amsterdam. But Ellis was released after just hours of questioning. Although the web site remains shut down, it remains unlikely that he will ever be charged with anything.

“If Google directed someone to a site [where] they can illegally download music they are doing the same as what I have been accused of,” Ellis claimed in an interview with The Telegraph. “I am not making any OiNK users break the law.”

The community of 180,000 users OiNK had accumulated proved to be both resilient and enterprising. Within months of OiNK’s decline, three members-only web sites nicknamed “piglets” were set up by ex-OiNK admins.

Learning from what happened to OiNK, these sites will undoubtedly prove to be even harder to shut down. The file-sharing community has settled comfortably into this cycle of birth, death, and rebirth, leaving governments and media conglomerates at a loss for what to do.

The battle over file sharing copyright infringement is even closer to home than you might think. As recently as December 4, 2007 the RCMP arrested and charged 25-year-old Montrealer Gérémi Adam — an alleged world leader in pirating movies. Adam was arrested while using a camcorder to copy a film in the AMC Forum at the corner of Atwater and Ste. Catherine. The RCMP hopes that the arrest is a step towards countering Montreal’s reputation as a major hub for movie piracy.

Also on the home front, Quebectorrent.com is a one-year-old, 46,000-member torrent web site which is currently fighting a cease and desist request from the Canadian Recording Industry Association. In an interview with torrentfreak.com, Quebec torrent’s legal team confirmed that should the case go to trial, it will set legal precedent for the prosecution of all BitTorrent web sites in Canada.

“If an eventual decision would condemn QuebecTorrent, it would effectively create a jurisprudential precedent in Canadian law — as this judgment would constitute the first jurisprudence in this matter, it would set out the applicable law to all BitTorrent websites in Canada.”

Quebec Torrent faces some of the largest media companies in Canada, including Sony BMG Music Canada, Universal Music Canada, and EMI Group Canada, and in keeping with the cooperative nature of file-sharing communities, is calling upon donations from users to fund legal fees.

A recent amendment to Canada’s digital copyright, Bill C-59, has toughened Canada’s laws against movie piracy. A Montreal man stands to be the first person to slapped with charges. The man, whose identity has still not been revealed, was arrested in a movie theatre on October 26, 2007 and faces up to two years in prison.

Policing the pirates

Axxo is the pseudonym of a teenager who has risen to online celebrity status due to his uploads of DVD-quality movies on torrent websites. In an interview with torrentfreak.com, Axxo preaches a proud message.

“Thank God in this country we don’t believe in copyright infringement. It’s just sharing entertainment, nothing more.”

He has managed thus far to keep his name and location a secret – for good reason. With more than a million people downloading his files every month, he is likely a high priority target for the anti-piracy forces. Rumours are circulated that the MPAA is biding its time, waiting for Axxo to turn 18 – then they’ll close in, and have free reign when prosecuting him.

The Pirate Bay is a particularly noteworthy torrent search web site. It has constantly been involved in torrent politics since being established by a Swedish anti-copyright organization Piratbyran (“The Pirate Bureau”) in 2004.

This kind of torrent piracy has spawned a whole new industry in anti-piracy firms, which are hired by conglomerates to try and prevent their media from being shared for free. The most notable of these firms is Los Angeles-based MediaDefender. Its controversial struggle against The Pirate Bay, with aggressive but legally dubious tactics, has caused a backlash: the start of pro-piracy group called Media Defender Defenders.

In Feb. 2007, MediaDefender launched their infamous video web site MiiVi.com, which torrentfreak.com and The Pirate Bay alleged was created to purposefully entrap users into committing copyright infringement and incriminating themselves. The publicity generated by the online community was enough to have Miivi.com shut down on July 4, 2007.

These allegations were then confirmed on Sept. 14, 2007 when 6,621 of MediaDefender’s internal staff emails were obtained by the MediaDefender Defenders and leaked to The Pirate Bay. The whole world was able to download it and read at their leisure. These emails confirmed that MiiVi.com had broken the law and ending up costing MediaDefender’s parent company, ARTISTdirect, at least $825,000.

The scandal is best summed up in a leaked email exchange between an employee and MediaDefender head Randy Saaf, in which Saaf’s reaction to a torrentfreak.com article denouncing Miivi was straightforward.

“This is really fucked. Lets pull Miivi offline.”

To add insult to this already very public injury, on September 16, 2007, a 25-minute phone conversation between the New York Attorney General’s office and MediaDefender was leaked by the MediaDefender Defenders onto The Pirate Bay as an mp3 for download. The conversation revealed that MediaDefender had been contracted by the government to find child pornography on the internet – a tricky issue since the illegal content has to be downloaded in order to be reported.

Pirate Bay’s servers in Sweden were raided in 2006, causing the web site to be offline for a mere three days – just enough time for them to move their servers to the Netherlands. The Pirate Bay faces three separate legal challenges. But in an interview with Ars Technica, Peter Sunde, one of the site’s administrators, said they’re not too worried about it.

“I’m glad to take it to court instead of letting him [the prosecutor] dig around my personal life for no apparent reason. Actually, it’s kinda funny.”

David v. Goliath, with a twist

The media industry is nowhere close to stemming the tide of file-sharing. Their strategy thus far hinges on the hope that making examples of enough individuals will eventually inspire fear in the general public – that the risks will outweigh the benefits of getting music, movies, TV shows and software for free. They’re probably wrong.

For now, practices such as having employees at movie theatres wear night vision goggles during film premiers are making the anti-piracy effort little more than a joke. The industry might do well to learn from artists like Radiohead, who have accepted that music will be downloaded and are distributing their music for free online prior to record store releases. Montreal’s beloved Arcade Fire took an even more creative approach: they established a telephone hotline, which played songs from their then-upcoming album Neon Bible.

Until corporations and government agencies come to their senses, online copyright infringement and file-sharing will continue to be the quintessential David and Goliath story of this and many generations to come. Except in this case, Goliath is too drunk on his own diminishing power – and possibly $65-a-glass scotch – to notice that David has stolen his wallet and maxed out his credit cards, and is now blogging about how easy it was.


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