Jeff Howe writes in the Wired magazine, that The pirate networks that are terrorizing the entertainment business start with a single stolen file and pump out bootleg games and movies by the millions. Excerpts with edits and comments added:
A hacker penetrates the corporate servers at Valve, the game company behind the popular first-person shooter Half-Life. He came away with a beta version of Half-Life 2. "I put it on Anathema. After that, it was all over." he says. Anathema is a so-called topsite, one of 30 or so underground, highly secretive servers where nearly all of the unlicensed music, movies, and videogames available on the Internet originate. Outside of a pirate elite and the Feds who track them, few know that topsites exist. Even fewer can log in. Within minutes of appearing on Anathema, Half-Life 2 spread. One file became 30 files became 3,000 files became 300,000 files as Valve stood helplessly by watching its big Christmas blockbuster turn into a lump of coal. The damage was irreversible - the horse was out of the barn, the county, and the state. The original Half-Life has sold more than 10 million games and expansion packs since its late 1998 release. Half-Life 2's official release finally happened in November, after almost a year of reprogramming. When someone posts the Half-Life 2 code to Anathema, he tapped an international network of people dedicated to propagating stolen files as widely and quickly as possible.
It's all a big game and, fantastic fun. Whoever transfers the most files to the most sites in the least amount of time wins. There are elaborate rules, with prizes in the offing and reputations at stake. Topsites like Anathema are at the apex. Once a file is posted to a topsite, it starts a rapid descent through wider and wider levels of an invisible network, multiplying exponentially along the way. At each step, more and more pirates pitch in to keep the avalanche tumbling downward. Finally, thousands, perhaps millions, of copies - all the progeny of that original file - spill into the public peer-to-peer networks: Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus. Without this duplication and distribution structure providing content, the P2P networks would run dry. (BitTorrent, a faster and more efficient type of P2P file-sharing, is an exception. But at present there are far fewer BitTorrent users.) It's a commonly held belief that P2P is about sharing files. It's an appealing, democratic notion: Consumers rip the movies and music they buy and post them online. But that's not quite how it works. In reality, the number of files on the Net ripped from store-bought CDs, DVDs, and videogames is statistically negligible. People don't share what they buy; they share what is already being shared - the countless descendants of a single "Adam and Eve" file. Even this is probably stolen; pirates have infiltrated the entertainment industry and usually obtain and rip content long before the public ever has a chance to buy it.
The whole shebang - the topsites, the pyramid, and the P2P networks girding it all together - is not about trading or sharing at all. It's a broadcast system. It takes a signal, the new U2 single, say, and broadcasts it around the world. The pirate pyramid is a perfect amplifier. The signal becomes more robust at every descending level, until it gets down to the P2P networks, by which time it can be received by anyone capable of typing "U2" into a search engine.As in any criminal conspiracy, it takes years of undercover work to get inside. The upper reaches of the network are a "darknet," hidden behind layers of security. The sites use a "bounce" to hide their IP address, and members can log in only from trusted IP addresses already on file. Most transmissions between sites use heavy-duty encryption. Finally, they continually change the usernames and passwords required to log in. Estimates say this media darknet distributes more than half a million movies every day. It's also, by any reading of the law, a vast criminal enterprise engaged in wholesale copyright infringement. But the Feds are getting smarter. Last spring, the FBI and US Department of Justice launched a series of raids codenamed Fastlink. Working with cops in different countries, the operation seized more than 200 computers. One confiscated server alone contained 65,000 pirated titles. Fastlink rubbed out a few topsites, but new ones filled the void. The flow of illicit games and movies slowed briefly, then resumed. Trying to distribute films like The Hulk through the P2Ps would take months, not hours. That's because files on the public file-sharing networks, where no single node is much more powerful than the next, spread at a glacial pace. Furthermore, when users connect to a P2P network - FastTrack, for example - they connect only to a small proportion of the number of other users connected at the same time. So unless a topsite seeds a file across the P2P network, the odds are slim that someone searching for a copy will actually find it.
Movie pirates get their booty from one of three sources: industry insiders, projectionists, or agents placed inside disc-stamping plants and retail outlets. "Half the kids in the scene work at Best Buy or Blockbuster to get their hands on stuff they can release," says an insider. "At the factory, maybe 15 percent of CDs and DVDs are defective," says Forest, "usually just because the label is off a little bit." They're dumped into a rubbish bin, ripe for the picking. Release groups break down broadly by medium - videogame, film, music, television - and then often into genre. One release group, for instance, specializes in obscure Japanese anime. Another works exclusively in Xbox games. Every release group has the same ultimate goal: Beat the street date of a big-name album, videogame, or movie by as much time as possible.
Whatever the original source - the film has to be properly prepared for distribution over the networks. Converting analog to digital is a difficult, time-consuming process. And getting it into a form that can be easily compressed into a digital box many times smaller than its original size is an even bigger undertaking. If it isn't done well, a topsite will reject the file. "Quality control is the number one job of the release groups," says an insder. "Topsites will only take a file that fits a long list of specifications. It basically has to be perfect." In fact, pretty much everyone joins the races from time to time. It's how the pirates while away their idle hours - the release group operator waiting for a new movie to be delivered, the ripper biding time while his gigabyte-sized files compress. Yet the best racers aren't even downloading all the pirate media they have access to. They have credits to burn, but that's not all that drives them. It's about being the fastest.The kids in the scene aren't trying to bomb the system. They don't care a whit whether major labels suffer more from file-sharing than indie labels, or if a ban on prerelease DVDs affects Miramax's chances at the Academy Awards. They do this because it feels mildly rebellious- because it's fun. Like ants, curries are monomaniacal about tiny tasks - they copy and move files from place to place - but together they form a force so powerful that it threatens to displace the traditional forms of media distribution.
Call it trickle-down file-sharing. The goods - a game, movie, song, or other piece of copyrighted media fall into an insider's hands. Then it's only a matter of hours before a drop becomes a tidal wave. Key Players:
1. THE INSIDER - Industry and theater employees run their own straight-to-video operations. Hackers looking for prerelease videogames target company servers. And before that long-awaited CD hits Amazon.com, moles inside disc-stamping plants have already got a copy.
2. THE PACKAGER - The pirated goods are passed on to a release group. These groups take multi-gigabyte movie files and squeeze them down for easy online trading.
3. THE DISTRIBUTOR - Release groups are known to have exclusive relationships with certain so-called topsites. These are the highly secretive sites at the top of the distribution pyramid. When a topsite operator drops a file, the avalanche begins.
4. THE COURIERS - Alerted by release groups, worker bees spring into action, copying and transferring files from the topsites to lower-level dump sites, and then from there to P2P networks like Kazaa and Morpheus. For the couriers, the payoff is props from their peers and credits redeemable for goods on upper levels of the pyramid.
5. THE PUBLIC - After the file is copied thousands of times the P2P networks saturate, allowing casual file-traders easy access to the newest movies, music, and videogames.
An excellent coverage of an amazing underground network in the digital age: this has all the characteristics needed to run an efficient modern day organisation : Structure, Systems, People, Processes, Reward Systems,Innovation and ability to push the needle all the way down... One can find this amazing - till the point it sinks in that this is completely against the law.. Powerful technology at the hands of wrong set of people and a network -- Scary thought..Hope we find ways to overcome this.