Forbidden Fruit

It's the world's largest music and movies superstore, and everything in it is free—and illegal. Every month, some five billion illegal downloads are passed around the internet, and the entertainment industry sues several hundred people. CP writer St

Architecturally, the BitTorrent movie and music sites offer the same kind of interactive features (forums, instant-messaging, user stats) that garnered Napster so many devoted cultists. Particular sites specialize according to affinity group (slasher pics, pre-Hays Code Hollywood talkies, Japanese horror movies) and, sometimes, security strategy. Most notably, there are a hell of a lot of gated communities: private trading sites that cap their membership rolls at a few hundred or a few thousand. Some are invitation-only, in an effort to keep out investigators; others seem as exclusive as Park Avenue co-ops, even requiring detailed applications from would-be members. Whatever a trading group's specific rules, the general assumption is that there's safety in limiting your numbers. A small, private, hard-to-join club is less likely to be noticed and infiltrated than a popular, high-volume site.

There's a contrarian camp of downloaders, though, which argues that the greatest safety lies in large numbers. Sure, the industry catches its fish at the big ponds, this line of reasoning goes—but what are the odds you'll be one of the few thousand caught, out of millions of users? (This side does point out, correctly, the all-or-nothing nature of the private club gambit: These groups routinely maintain member-browsable archives of all the uploading and downloading activity at the site, and in the event such a club is ever busted, that archive becomes Plaintiff's Exhibit A.)

All but the most casual downloaders, regardless of their larger strategic views on getting away with it, have taken to strapping up with various kinds of privacy software when they venture out to snatch or share files. These range from the obvious sorts of cookie-blocking software to custom programs designed specifically to keep web pirates out of harm's way. One such program, Peer Guardian, runs in the background to scan for and block intruding IPs that are known to be affiliated with the entertainment industry. (At last check, it claimed to have 709,202,383 dubious IP addresses in its database.) Many users also watch where they go, making a habit of using newsgroups to download any new movies or HBO series they want, since no record is made of downloads from newsgroups. The heat around HBO product in particular stems from an enforcement campaign the network has launched against downloaders. HBO now monitors BitTorrent downloads of current-season episodes from all its shows, and reports culprits to their ISPs.

Between the mid-1990s and the present day, the American entertainment business—speaking here mainly of the movie and music industries—has seen its combined annual revenues tumble precipitously. In 2005 alone, the MPAA claimed direct losses from piracy of $6.1 billion, the RIAA $1 billion. (They both look like lightweights compared to the software applications industry, which claims annual losses to piracy of $12 billion, and further estimates that 25 percent of all the software running in American workplaces is illegal.)

It's hard to imagine any reliable accounting of what downloaders cost the corporations that own entertainment copyrights. An honest calculus would have to look past the retail value of total product downloaded, and compensate for factors such as the tire-kickers who download pirated product they never would buy—and often never use—just because it's there and they're curious; the people who download a movie or CD and later buy the official release as well; the people who go to fewer movies and buy fewer CDs because of shrinking incomes; and the people who consume less retail entertainment product because they just don't find much to like in it. When it comes to the matter of Hollywood's badly slumping box office receipts, for instance, who can say exactly how much of the attrition is due to illegal downloads and how much is due to mounting public indifference to the crummy, formulaic, blockbuster-first mentality that has run the town since the 1980s?

At some point in the ceaseless back-and-forth of the downloading wars, the industry will be forced to weigh costs and benefits. At what point in spending money to chase cheaters do you reach a point of diminishing returns? And what degree of loss has to be tolerated as practical fact? Downloaders did not invent shoplifting. Every retail industry expects some degree of "shrinkage" as part of the cost of doing business. The digital age has made those costs steeper, and the counter-measures more complicated, but the essential dynamic is an old one.

In the end, most people who download files illegally do so sporadically, and keep spending money on legal product as well. What gives entertainment companies the willies are two particular substrata of the file-sharing populace. The one that scares the bejabbers out of them is young people. Downloader demos skew very young, and there's every reason to think they will stay that way. That's in part because although some file-sharing systems like the popular BitTorrent are simple to use, numerous others (think Internet Relay Chat, or eDonkey) have proven navigable only by users with some serious computer skills—meaning, disproportionately, those people who happen to be learning their way around computers amid the current wave of PC technology. Kids. The entertainment industry fears today's kids for cultural reasons as well as technical reasons. Put it this way: A 13-year-old boy accustomed to snatching every CD, game, and movie he desires as a matter of course—even competing with his school friends to see who can find the hottest stuff—is not abashed when someone tries to impress on him that there are laws against that kind of thing. He's half-incredulous that so many people observe those laws.

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