Are Pirates Kept at Bay?

For those of you who have no clue about torrents and all the piracy issues that has been the subject of some reports in the media lately, you should read the next paragraphs; for those of us already in the knowing, just skip them.

Since the very beginning of the internet, people have been using it to distribute illegal material. It was much handier and cheaper than copying and distributing disks with application, pictures or any documents. But unless you were a tech savvy geeky student, you wouldn’t even know that this was happening right under your nose.

Most of the channels involved in the distribution of those materials required a lot of patience and a bit of luck. It usually started on IRC (chat room) where the file would be made available by hacking the IRC server and installing a robot which would distribute the files. To circumvent the restrictions imposed on these chat rooms different tricks would be used, the easiest would be splitting the file in multiple parts that would not look conspicuous.

Other means where to hack FTP web site to deposit the file or even dedicated FTP site with login and passwords which would even sometimes use a ratio that would require the user to upload something before any could be downloaded from the server.

Piracy was mostly impacting software that, at the beginning, did not even require any sort of activation or serial number. The rules changed a little once the authors started to implement some protection which improved over time, starting from simple serial to online activation, dongles or CD that have continually present to use the application. This started the competition of some very groups on the web, these program hackers would find a way to remove these protections by using some resident program to elude the application, or even reprogram the main application to remove the protection altogether. The steps required to remove those protection would sometime require a lengthy process that had to be strictly followed by the user.

As of today these groups are still active and are releasing patches and other tools to counteract the protection that legitimate software developers include in their application. However piracy acts didn’t stop there; with the arrival of a new compression algorithm for music (MPEG-1 Audio Layer 3 or MP3) which reduced the required side of a song file by a factor of eleven to one, it began to slowly spread as the standard to transfer pirated music file that were ripped from CDs.

However “user friendly” piracy became a possible with the arrival of Napster. The first so called peer to peer application that was available for all to use freely. The reaction of the music industry was quite strong once they learned that music files containing songs that had not been commercially released were available on Napster.

Because Napster used a central server to store the list of songs shared at any point in time by all the machines connected to it, it was possible for the authority to shut it down, which they did! The application and web site were later bought by a company who converted it to a pay per download site. But users had a taste of the possibility of online sharing, with the introduction of this peer to peer network using indexing and resource discovery; it didn’t take long to have other servers opening up with not only music but any sort of file. This was the beginning rise of the eMule application. The problem with this protocol is that if you make a search you might find what you want or you might end up with a file that seems likes what you are looking for but contains or is rubbish.

The next and most interesting protocol using unstructured peer-to-peer systems was released by Nullsoft. The company had previously published Winamp, which was the most popular application to play MP3 at the time and one of the reasons of the widespread adoption of the mp3 standard. After this success Nullsoft had been bought by AOL and even if their new application was available for a day before the corporation decided to shut down its distribution server, the damage had been done. Users were able to reverse engineer the Gnutella protocol and publish it publicly for everyone to use. This paved the way for application such as Limewire, Kazaa and many others. The one setback with this standard was that a rare file would not always show up in the result of the search on all the peers available at the time.

That changed with the arrival of structured peer-to-peer systems which basically worked the same way as the unstructured one except that it uses a globally consistent protocol to ensure that any node can efficiently route a search to some peer that has the desired file, even if the file is extremely rare. To work you need to have a tracker server that will communicate all the seeds that have the available file. It basically provides all the computers that have either the full file or some bits of it available to download. You only need to connect to the sever tracker once to be able to download files, afterwards you don’t really need the connection anymore, unless you want to update the list of nodes where you can fetch the file from. The internet location of that tracker site and the content that will be downloaded are stored in a “.torrent” file.

To distribute those torrent file, index web sites have been created with a database listing all those torrent tracker files. By using a Torrent downloading application such as µtorrent, users just have to just click the torrent file, this would list the content that has to be downloaded and the program will then connect to the tracker sites and start listing the computers that are currently sharing these files.

This is where the Pirate Bay story starts; Pirate Bay is one of those Tracker servers, the largest open one on the net at this point in time. The Pirate Bay also offers an index service to search and find torrent files. It is very important to understand that the Pirate Bay’s servers do not hold any copyright protected material, just index of torrent files that are giving an address to connect to get the list of computers that contain some parts or all of the content listed in the torrent file.

The operator and owner of the pirate bay’s website are claiming that they have as much control over the content of the site as Google has over the content of its search engine. Both are redirecting to other places and are not storing the information themselves. But, if the pirate bay is shut down the content will remain available for those currently downloading, however it will be impossible for anyone new to get access to this material again unless it was already listing another tracker website. The argument of the industry defending copyrighted material is that the web site intentionally facilitates the access to pirated material and therefore is breaking the law. Both arguments are the subject of the court case and even if a first ruling has convicted that the owner are guilty, they are still appealing and the website is still online…

I have to admire the tenacity of these people; they have faced the biggest industries and survived up until now. It is not surprising that they have become some kind of an icon when it comes to a modern version of a pirate, defying authority and using the big brother system against itself. It also provides that sort of Robin Hood picture of stealing to the rich and giving to the poor.