Cancel Cable

Chris Fehily

Part 1

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Cancel Cable: How Internet Pirates Get Free Stuff.

by Chris Fehily.

Chapter 1 The Terrain.

Free for the taking: an internet bounty of shared movies, TV shows, music, video games, fonts, books, software, photos, and anything that can be digitized and copied. What's the catch?

Lawyers.

Depending on where you live and what you share, file sharing might be unlawful. Only in the United States are these laws enforced with any vigor. (Most of what's shared is produced in the US, and protecting American intellectual property isn't a concern for other nations.) Under US law, the crime is copyright infringement, a term so fatiguing that interest groups rechristened it piracy. Infringement leaves the original work intact and isn't piracy (or theft) in the common sense, but that's what happens when your opponent controls the language of the debate. The enforcement and awareness campaigns of copyright holders have been so grasping and ham-handed, however, that ordinary people now call themselves pirates, either matter-of-factly or defiantly.

My own Damascus Road came while watching a Hollywood propagandette featuring a backstage n.o.body griping about movie pirates picking his pockets. Considering the enormous money and influence at play put me in mind of the banker who enjoys an $800 lunch at Masa before dashing off a note to a finance minister about the austerity program.

File-sharing news at TorrentFreak reports the regular failures of copyright holders and their enforcers. They pushed through their own laws by using the usual methods but then got lazy, unwisely listening to litigators rather than public-relations consultants, who would have counseled them to: Censor the internet via political pressure on weak internet service providers.

Hire a PR flack to design a campaign to convince the bewildered herd that file sharing is a threat to their ent.i.tlements.

Apply power from the top and protect it from the bottom. Convince cops that intellectual property is real property. Cops, paid with property taxes, are more vigilant about property-related crimes than violent ones.

If you live in the United States, read this book as you would one about evading taxes or creating home meth labs. Elsewhere, officials enforce intellectual-property laws mincingly, prosecuting people they dislike or tossing the odd pirate to a US trading partner or domestic front group.

Victims.

The US, the UK, France, and a few other late-stage mercantilists have piracy laws with nontrivial punishments. Though these laws are mostly unenforced (it's career and spiritual death for public prosecutors), private lawyers still love them.

In the US, for example, entrepreneurial lawyers buddy up with producers of low-grossing movies, threaten downloaders en ma.s.se, and then split the settlements. "Threaten" not "summon," and "settlements" not "awards." These suits aren't intended to go to court. The targets are told to pay up or be sued for serious cash. The sweet spot appears to be a $1500$2500 settlement, an amount that most people, guilty or not, will pay to make a lawyer go away. Ensnared pirates who pay the settlement still don't do badly; after all, they've saved a mountain of cash over the years by not paying for stuff they've downloaded. UK lawyers run a similar racket. It's a growth industry.

As a scare tactic, US industry groups (usually the MPAA and RIAA) sometimes sue people and pirate websites in court. Court-imposed fines are huge, though these crimes should be on par with shoplifting.

Q&A.

Q: The world's full of lawyers who dispense injustice. So what?

A: No real effort is made to establish guilt. The technology that fingers downloaders is flawed and casts a wide net. Corpses and network printers have been threatened.

Q: Collateral damage aside, didn't these pirates get what was coming?

A: Startup idea: License or create copyrighted material. Dangle it on pirate sites and sue Americans who bite. Profit!

Q: Won't encouraging piracy drum up business for these lawyers?

A: Most books have no measurable effect, and piracy is legal or near riskless for most of humanity.

Q: Don't artists have the right to make a living from their work?

A: It's a desire, not a right.

Q: And small businesses?

A: New sellers of knitting patterns, fonts, comic books, guitar lessons, and fashion designs learn that such things have long been shared online. To be surprised or embittered invites more schadenfreude than sympathy.

Q: And you?

A: This book is headed for pirate sites with or without my consent. Even if I sell it in only paperback format, someone will photocopy it and post it online, or someone at the printer will swipe the PDF and post it. Or, some book reviewer's kid will do it. But they won't have to because I am going to post it, heading off low-quality or expurgated copies. If pirates hurt sales of the for-pay versions, I'll find another way to make money. Musicians give concerts. Artists get patrons. Writers speak.

Q: I've read about people getting busted for piracy and paying huge fines - isn't file-sharing riskier than you imply?

A: You've also read about fraud busts at tax time and drug busts before elections. News is by definition the reporting of rare events. When trivial or commonplace events are treated as news, ask yourself, "Why now?" and "Who benefits?" Most drugs-in-our-schools stories, for example, are scripted in the studio. A reporter and cameraman, rather than wander the halls until Judgment looking for an actual dealer, find a kid who'll agree, "Sure, I'll say I sell drugs in school on camera." With few exceptions, laws are written to advantage their writers. Interested parties, not legislators, draft copyright laws and use the press to create the illusion of enforcement. When calculating the probability of being caught, consider in your denominator that piracy accounts for at least a quarter of worldwide internet traffic.

Q: Still, isn't piracy a bit dishonorable?

A: Honor is unimportant in my society, but my understanding is that it's something earned and not tarnished except by the shame of the acquirer. One's honor is not at the discretion of counter-pirates. Twinge of conscience? Tell yourself that you never would have bought what you're downloading for free, so the owners incur no loss. As for the goals of the creative cla.s.s, fame and attractive lovers trump money.

Benefits.

Here's what you're missing: Zero cost. Everything that you download is free free free.

No shame. I've worked in and around Silicon Valley for more than 15 years, and I have yet to meet anyone privately concerned with the legality of anything downloaded over the internet.

Fillerless. TV shows have no ads. Movies have no menus, unskippable content, autoplay ads, forced user input, or copythreats.

Minimal wait. That new episode of Doctor Who is available for download worldwide minutes after it airs on the BBC. Unedited Olympic, World Cup, NFL, and other sports events are posted right after the final whistle (no TV time-shifting).

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No DRM. Digital rights management (DRM) is broken or bypa.s.sed in pirate downloads. DRM prevents you from watching, playing, hearing, reading, opening, or copying something whenever and wherever you want. Retail DVDs, for example, are region-coded to play only in specific parts of the world. Retail music, games, ebooks, and software often have DRM restrictions too. (DRM isn't about impeding pirates but repeatedly selling ordinary customers the same content in different formats.) Opt out. Every act of piracy nibbles at the world of enforcers, patent trolls, ad agencies, techno-optimists, free-marketeers, agents, graphic designers, and flag wavers.

If the client or server has a problem mid-download (a power outage, lost connection, or system crash), then you're stuck with an incomplete file and typically must restart the download - possibly a big download - from scratch.

Peer-to-Peer Networks.

Adequate mirroring (use of cloned servers) alleviates some of the problems of client-server networks, but BitTorrent solves them outright by using a peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing network. Unlike a server-based network, where most of the resources lie with a few central servers, a P2P network has only peers, which are ordinary computers (like yours) that all act as equal points on the network. Every machine on a P2P network can simultaneously download from and upload to every other machine, so the notion of dedicated clients and servers doesn't apply to P2P.

What You'll Need.

To download files via BitTorrent, you need: A high-speed internet connection such as DSL, cable, fiber, T1, or satellite. BitTorrent is about transferring big files, but if you're downloading a small doc.u.ment or photo, a dial-up connection will work in a creaky sort of way.

A computer running a mainstream operating system. This book covers Windows 7 and Mac OS X 10.6 (Snow Leopard).

A free program called a BitTorrent client, described in Chapter 6.

A hard drive with lots of free s.p.a.ce.

When you visit a pirate website for the first time, you might be surprised by the ma.s.sive amount and variety of what's freely available and the human motivations behind it. People share files to be generous, share knowledge, spread propaganda, return favors, sabotage employers, spread viruses, refute reputations, show technical prowess, advertise products, compete with other sharers, sell services, escape obscurity, be useful to others, betray friends, defy authority, show off to girls, earn bragging rights, and on and on.

Despite its strictureless amorality, the world of ma.s.s piracy has rules. (Rules emerge in all self-organizing complex systems.) Experienced file-sharers: Use filenames and keywords that make it easy for others to find the files.

Organize multiple-file downloads in folders.

Encode files in popular and standard formats such as MP3 for audio files and PDF or EPUB for books.

Split different categories of files into independent distributions (movies, music, books, games, and so on).

With experience, you'll notice other rules, self-enforced because no one wants to look like a tourist. Individual pirate sites have their own rules (some forbid p.o.r.n, for example) that they enforce by removing offending files or banning violators.

BitTorrent, Step by Step.

Let's look at the birth, life, and decline of a generic file shared via BitTorrent. As a new pirate, you'll be downloading files that other people have provided. The first step below is something you do yourself only when you're sharing your own files with others. Any number of files can be shared in a single download, but for simplicity this example uses only one file.

One seeder. The original sharer uses his BitTorrent client to create a torrent file and save it on his hard drive. This file contains metadata, or information about the file to share, not the file itself. A torrent file: Has a filename that describes what's being shared, so that people can search for it. The filename for a TV show, for example, should contain at least the show's t.i.tle and episode number.

Has the filename extension .torrent (for details about extensions, see Chapter 3).

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