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How and why there is piracy of popular content.

Posted by ken On February - 7 - 2010

Historical Aspect

Our cinemas and television stations are experiencing challenges never encountered fifty years ago. There was a considerable lag between a movie being seen in the US and in a Perth cinema during the 1950s. The movies shown in the suburban cinemas could be years behind the US first release date. The same was often the case with our television viewing, with Perth being a late starter in the TV field, compared to the US and the UK. Quadraplex 2 inch videotape was not invented by AMPEX until 1956 and film projectors were not common in homes, except for 8mm home movies or the rent of 16mm films. Nor was there any practical way for the widespread copying of programs until the popular VHS and Beta formats of half inch helicon scan home video recorders became available in the mid 1970s.

It would take almost 30 years before technology and the internet challenged the sovereignty of movie and television studios.

File Sharing

No longer do the analogue film and videotape mediums rein supreme as a way to distributing movies and TV programs. This content can now he stored digitally, edited with computers and sent to various destinations over the internet.

Once a show is treated as a simple computer file and duplicated with ease, with no loss of quality, the control of distribution became more difficult. BitTorrent is the most popular software package in general use for copying files over the internet.

The first usable version of BitTorrent appeared in October 2002, being created by a young programmer named Bram Cohen, who had worked for a number of doomed dot-com startups.

Earlier forms of file-sharing, such as the first generation Napster and second generation Kazaa, were waning in popularity under legal pressure from the music industry.

Cohen was not interested in fostering the widespread practice of copyright infringement, but rather finding a system to overcome the internet bandwidth limits. He came up with a system that made it easy to distribute very large files to large numbers of people, while placing minimal bandwidth requirements on the original source.

BitTorrent cuts up files into many little pieces, and as soon as a user has a piece, they immediately start uploading that piece to other users. So almost all of the people who are sharing a given file are simultaneously uploading and downloading pieces of the same file until their downloading is complete. Therefore everyone is sharing with one another, rather than downloading from a central source.

The BitTorrent protocol offloads some of the file tracking work to a central server (called a tracker). Users firstly download a .torrent file which corresponds to the file they seek. They find this by a Google search or by going to a site dedicated to shareable software, music, videos or ebooks. The .torrent file points to the actual file people want.

BitTorrent really started to take off in early 2003 when it was used to distribute a new version of the open source Linux operating system, then soon after was adopted for all manner of file sharing, including that of copyright material.

BitTorrent’s surging popularity prompted the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to start sending infringement notices to BitTorrent site operators in November 2004. Its also hard for the file sharing participants to hide as they were not anonymous, their numeric Internet addresses are easily viewable by anyone who cares. The MPAA also started up a ‘You Can Click But You Can’t Hide’ publicity campaign to scare and intimidate.


As BitTorrent increased its popularity through 2004 and 2005, site operators started receiving mail penned by MPAA-retained lawyers. The administrator of one such site, LokiTorrent, closed the site and turned over its logs, amidst controversy, as part of a settlement ending a 2005 copyright infringement lawsuit filed by MPAA studios against them. Many BitTorrent trackers were hosted in the United States, but most have been pressured to leave, largely due to MPAA pressure. When EliteTorrents leaked a workprint copy of Star Wars: Episode 3 – it attracted the interest of the FBI, who shut down the site and arrested the admins and up-loaders. Key people received jail time, home confinement and fines. The leak did little to hurt the movie as it went on to gross nearly $US110 million in its first weekend and has nearly reached a worldwide total of $US1 billion.

The Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT) representing the interests of Village Roadshow, Universal Pictures, Warner Bros Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, Disney Enterprises, Inc, the Seven Network and others is disappointed that their latest attempt to shut down piracy in this country was shot down in the Federal Court. They wanted Australia’s third largest ISP iiNet held responsible for its customers downloading content illegally. However Federal Court judge Justice Dennis Cowdroy found iiNet was not responsible for the infringements of its users.The organisation has 21 days to appeal the judgement. However, they may lobby the government instead to have laws changed to get the outcome they desire.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) could come to their aid as it is planning to filter illegal and highly offensive material from the internet and many torrent sites may end up being blocked.

Meanwhile the Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, Senator Stephen Conroy, expressed hopes that both the ISPs and the film industry can work together to find a solution to the problem of wide spread internet piracy.

Senator Stephen Conroy

Senator Conroy was interviewed on ABC-TV’s Hungry Beast –

Hungry Beast is broadcast Wednesday nights on ABC1 at 9pm and Thursday nights on ABC2 at 8.30pm.

Defining the problem and finding a solution

It seems that BitTorrent is popular among Australians, with reporting that it is more popular here than in every other country in the world. This method of file copying can be used for the legitimate transfer of open source software, which exists in vast quantities. The fact that BitTorrent is used for illegal purposes is an issue with the perpetrators, rather than the software that makes it happen. One may have a gun licence but how that gun is used is a different matter. Most people own a car, yet many lives are lost each year on the roads. Most of us can do without a gun, should they be banned, but can we do without cars?

There has to be a need, that is otherwise not satisfied, to motivate ordinary people en masse to download movies and television programs over the internet. Much of this is taking place legally, but there is also an underground element to it.

There also needs to be the easy availability of movies and shows for illicit activity to be so popular. The need is often the early viewing of a movie not yet released in Australia, in the theatres or on DVD, or the early viewing of a TV show that has not been broadcast here yet.

There will also be cases where people will do it because they can, regardless of its current availability in this country or concerns for copyright and the law.

Added to that, the viewing quality of downloaded movies in the home can exceed the experience at a cinema. Particularly when compared with poor quality 35mm film prints, especially when cinemas employ young poorly trained staff who project soft focus images or the projector lamp is not at optimum brightness.

Many movies are legitimately bought or hired online, whilst others may be pirated. Not all pirated movies come from quality sources, as movie studios and cinemas clamp down on illicit staff activities. Other material recorded under adverse conditions is a great deterrent for downloaders because of the very poor quality.


So what factors encourage people to download pirated movies?

Firstly, one does not have to leave their home. Secondly, it is essentially free, though they have to pay for their internet connection. Thirdly, drinks and food consumption is much cheaper at home. Then people want to see the latest movie release at the earliest opportunity.

With television shows, its more a case of people wanting to see it now rather than when the television station makes it available. There is also a vastly greater number of shows being made than the TV stations can possibly transmit in a given week. The tastes of station programmers can not always coincide with what each viewer likes… its always a compromise, often going for the lowest common denominator. Its impossible for any station to cater for the eclectic tastes of an entire population. People even get annoyed by the repeats of the Pay TV stations and lack of consistent fresh material, even though they have come up with innovative technology and many channels to cater for all tastes. Its hard to please all the people all the time. But pleasing most of the people most of the time no longer satisfies all… and the number seems to be growing as the younger generations reject the norms of yesteryear.

Piracy can be inhibited if there is no advantage sharing the material in the first place. But is this practical?

People want to see content when it suits them and they want to be entertained by programs that meet their present mood and need.

It would be an unpalatable option for cinemas and television stations if the release of all content took place at the same time world wide. Much the same as a live sporting event, such as the Olympics. That applies to news breaking events and matters very pertinent to the moment. But comedy, drama, soap operas and the like are not considered matters of great urgency.

Yet the moment a TV show is broadcast in the US or UK someone records it and makes it available for download through BitTorrent.

Firstly, the various world wide time zones presents a problem from a TV station perspective. Perth is eight hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Coordinated Universal Time (UTC). A program first shown in London at 8pm will coincide with midday Perth time. A program first shown during a New York evening will coincide with daytime of the previous day (according to time zone date) in Perth. Delaying the broadcast for a peak-time first release of a top rating show, to appear here on the same day and the same time as overseas, would not preempt the downloaders, as it can be available on BitTorrent hours before, depending on the motivation of the illegal uploaders.

On the other hand, a broadcast time may not be convenient for many reasons. People may be in bed, on holidays, visiting or entertaining friends, playing sports or engaged in hobbies or working. So immediacy may be less important to one person than another and convenience be the overriding factor.

Downloading of content can resolve all these issues… its just a case of people doing so without contravening copyright and according to the user pays principle. If the user is not willing to pay, then the advertiser supported model is an option, once again being content on demand. People who are disinterested, inept, incapacitated or too lazy still have the option of viewing a program stream that has been selected for them. Whether that be free-to-air or PayTV.

Presented here are a number of likelihoods. Current trends indicate there is a high possibility everything will change as new events evolve. Changes are constantly taking place between the attitudes and viewing aspirations of different generations, governed largely by the technology available, an understanding of that technology and the opportunities they present.

So as time progresses, more of the population may prefer to buy or hire their content on the grounds of convenience. A common world wide release date and time could work in this case, being more convenient than obtaining the material illegally, and a disincentive for people doing so. But this would only suit material of an international appeal and have to be sold within a world wide free market framework. Australian produced drama, comedy, variety etc. should not be impacted to the same degree, as long as the shows don’t fall into the hands of unscrupulous people who pirate them before broadcast. Meanwhile other local content such as national and state news and sport would remain ideal for free-to-air broadcasters.

Further references…

Ashwin Navin discussing the history of BitTorrent

Bram Cohen Cultural Industries in the Age of Digital Reproduction

ISP-level content filtering won’t work

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