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« Lessig on Copyrighting the President | Main | Posner on Grokster »

August 27, 2004


I'm glad you see the benifits of BitTorrent being used as an efficient way to get legal media out to the masses, but it is very important to keep in mind how easy it is to use BitTorrent to steal as well.

You know how BT works so you probably also know about suprnova. For those not familiar with suprnova, it is a site that keeps tracks of various torrents that are being seeded by users. If one person seeds a torrent, then multiple users can start downloading the file. Once another finishes downloading but leaves the file open, then you have 2 complete seeds. From this site, it is "generally...considered good manners to continue seeding a file after you have finished downloading, to help out others." And the cycle continues...

Anyway, just by looking at suprnova, one can see how many copies of all sorts of media are available for download. There are complete tv shows, movies, albums, games, etc.

You mentioned Half-Life 2, so we might as well keep the topic in games and talk about Doom 3. :-) Doom 3 was a heavily anticipated game, like HL2, especially for its new engine. To illustrate what kind of potential negative impact BT can have, take a look at how many Doom 3 downloads are going on right now. Of course, there are going to be many cracked copies of a newly released, and popular, game floating around - not all of which are working copies. But you can generally tell which ones are good and which ones are bad by how many people are seeding (if it is a bad copy, most people junk it - unless you are trying to spoof or just being mean) and how many people are downloading it.

And people familiar with warez and cracked copies of games will slowly be able to recognize which groups release quality rips of games. For example, if you see a release by Razor1911, you know you are getting a good working cracked copy of a game.

Right now, there are over 5000 people downloading some form of Doom 3, as listed by suprnova. One particular file alone has 2300 users. This, clearly, has potential to be a working copy of Doom 3. There are also 432 seeders of this file. The file itself weighs in at 1.7 GB, which of course back in the day of 14400 baud external modems would never be feasible to download, but now with cable modems being as common as they are...

Before Doom 3 was even released, the full cracked copy was up and running. The numbers of downloads were really astonishing. There were reports of how many people downloaded that game for free. This is illegal, and it is all possible because BT works so well.

However, the actual damage caused to the makers of Doom 3 is not clear. There are generally several types of people who download full working games illegally. My guess is that the massive numbers are due to those people who are just downloading the game because they can do so with little effort. Not that they would have gone out and purchased the game - but they will get it for free. This type of downloader is not really hurting the potential revenue Doom 3 would have had if it wasn't leaked, cracked and shared. If anything, an argument might be made that these users generate hype.

So BT can have positive and negative uses as is typical of all file sharing programs. While finding and downloading working copies of different forms of media is becomming easier and easier, and thus a big negative, it is not clear how much the media companies are suffering because nobody knows if these people would have bought the game anyway. Because it is not clear how much damage is actually being caused, I agree that BT has an incredible potential for good.

All of your points are absolutely correct and I'd like to expand on them a bit. Many people do indeed download copyrighted works on BitTorrent. However, BitTorrent is far from anonymous. Its own creator has said in interviews that he considers it foolish to share copyrighted materials using BT. Anyone who is sharing (downloading) a tracker can see the IP address of all others on the tracker. The MPAA has filed many complaints obtained from a relatively simple check of who is using a tracker. If I'm the media companies (and I have decided that attacking the consumers is the best strategy), I would rather have technology that is easy to police than some more anonymous program.

As for torrent directory sites like Suprnova, that's just an easy to access directory of infringers as far as the copyright holders are concerned. If the owners of Doom 3 feel like getting a huge list of people who are sharing their copyrighted software, it's as simple as hopping onto the tracker and obtaining a list of 2000+ IP addresses. The higher profile releases (movies, games, songs, etc.) are a lot more of a risk to download because they just invite copyright holders to do something about it. People still share though, because a high profile release will have more people sharing the file - and on BT, more sharers equals faster downloads for everyone.

Which brings us back to a key problem - after identifying the IP addresses of sharers, do you want to sue a few thousand downloaders who often overlap with your paying customers? And another issue - not all of the people downloading are in the US. What can be done about the hundreds of people downloading in Sweden, Russia, China, etc... These two problems exist regardless of the program used to acquire the works.

A note as well about your comment on high profile pirate groups like Razor1911. It seems to me to be a tremendously bad idea to associate with such groups in the current legal climate. The DOJ has been involved in a major crackdown with projects such as Operation Buccanneer, which sent several of the key players in the Razor1911 group to jail. The general public doesn't feel much outrage when the FBI arrests people who are systematically distributing and cracking lots of software under the banner of a "warez group". The general public does sense some injustice when an individual gets sued for sharing a few files. US societal norms just don't accept a group formed with the intention of distributing copyrighted materials. Society is a lot more accepting of casual use of Kazaa.

In my mind, continued legal action is just going to force the underground groups even further underground. They will still do the same things, but distribution will be more anonymous. That's why we have the whole P2P debate. Some of the same pirate distributors have been around for over a decade, but only a small percentage of the consumer market is truly aware that these groups exist. P2P, on the other hand, brings pirate distribution away from the realm of the techies and hackers and into the consciousness of the casual computer user. P2P is making the old hacker distribution system obsolete in the same way it is making the recording industry's distribution system obsolete. Power is now in the hands of Joe Public, and that terrifies the companies who are used to exclusive control.

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