The Rise and Fall of the Pirates of Torrent Bay

Tales from the Encrypted

The Rise and Fall of the Pirates of Torrent Bay

Illustration: Saachi Mehta/ Arré

 

O

n a warm summer’s day in 2012, at a sprawling, albeit obnoxiously large, mansion on the outskirts of Auckland, the calm rustling of leaves suddenly transformed to a gale-force swirl. Heavily armed assault helicopters, carrying 73 elite New Zealand police officers, descended on the home of the larger-than-life (both in deeds and stature) Kim Dotcom, his wife, their two children, and nannies, to save the world from the terrors of illegal file-sharing over the internet. Dotcom was the founder of the notorious MegaUpload and MegaVideo websites, which were, until then, renowned for hosting illegal copies of movies, music, software, and video games.

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Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Hollywood studio executives toasted their victory alongside federal government and law enforcement officials, while the world watched a heavily armed gang of thugs destroy the home of a fat nerd in front of his wife and kids because people went to his website to catch the latest episode of Breaking Bad. Dotcom hobbled out of his home in handcuffs surrounded by New Zealand’s finest. He had been beaten and his house turned upside down in their search to find him in his safe room, nestled in the heart of his lair. The police had set up tents in the yard, as his possessions were being catalogued, and high-fived each other. “What am I being charged with,” he asked, still shaken by the scene that surrounded him. Their response “copyright infringement”.

Millions of legitimate MegaUpload users, who stored no illegal or unlicensed content, found their files (many of which were critical backups or irreplaceable data) seized and permanently withheld by the FBI on MegaUpload’s servers. Angry questions were asked about government overreach, international law, and allegations surfaced of a conspiracy between Hollywood lobbyists and the United States government. While dramatic and disproportionate, the intent of the raid was clear – to set an example to the cyber pirates of the future.

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The struggle against copy protection has existed since the days of the printing press. In the decades preceding the Enlightenment in Europe, alleged “privateers” and “pirates” used lists of banned books as a marketing strategy to determine which books could be reprinted and are met with a high demand. Once unshackled from the government’s control of what constituted permissible reading materials because of their “dangerous ideas”, the people of France fulfilled Thomas Jefferson’s famous adage about a well-informed citizenry, and overthrew their monarchs to become self-governing people, cementing a milestone for democracy in the modern era. To many advocates of file-sharing, the feudal systems of the 18th century have merely been replaced with a system of “Information Feudalism” in the 21st century.

In the eponymous blockbuster science-fiction film of the late 1990s, Laurence Fishburne proclaims that “no one can be told what ‘The Matrix’ is, you have to see it for yourself”, a line that many would agree with after watching the final installment of the series. For the next decade, however, legal access to the critically acclaimed Wachowski brothers’ masterpiece was available on an overpriced DVD, viewable after watching several minutes of unskippable advertisements and statutory notices, on a disc that was region-locked to a specific part of the world.

Fans of a series whose central narrative spoke of “freeing your mind” and standing up to systems of control and authority that had literally and figuratively enslaved the human race, found themselves being told that the disc they legally owned could only be watched in the region in which it was purchased, after mandatorily watching all the advertisements that came with it.

Gabe Newell, the CEO and founder of the multi-billion dollar “Steam” platform (the de facto retail source for PC games online), cites piracy as an issue of service, as opposed to one of price. In a 2011 interview Newell famously said, “If a pirate offers a product anywhere in the world, 24×7, purchasable from the convenience of your personal computer, and the legal provider says the product is region-locked, will come to your country 3 months after the US release, and can only be purchased at a brick and mortar store, then the pirate’s service is more valuable.”

As if predestined by the gods of satirical providence, a man who built an empire on a mountain of illegally archived music and movies was caught, perhaps because he couldn’t resist the simplicity and convenience of a legal purchase when it’s available.

There is no doubt that the intellectual property rights of content creators must be protected, and laws against the distribution of pirated content must remain. To represent piracy as “file-sharing” is largely misguided in the modern context, in terms of the technology at work, as well as the intent of the users who circulate pirated content. “File-sharing” does not justify putting a copy of a movie, video game, or music album online for anyone to consume. The industry has no problem with the intent of a couple of teenagers exchanging their music or movies. The distribution of content over the internet via file-sharing websites or Bittorrent, is quite simply broadcasting, which lies at the heart of the problem, and is an understandable issue for content creators.

Content creators have, however, historically made legal access to content sometimes immensely difficult, even for would-be consumers. Almost as if driven by an evolutionary trait, people’s insatiable need for entertainment has made them adapt to circumstances, where if the content they wanted was not available legally, it inevitably led them to online piracy. In many ways, services like Napster, MegaUpload, and MegaVideo that were notorious for enabling access to illegal downloads, paved the way for the popularity and widespread acceptance of iTunes, and Netflix.

Times are slowly changing and piracy is on the decline. Apple and Google now provide access to thousands of movies straight to the pockets of their consumers through iTunes and Google Play, but their libraries still leave a lot to be desired with cult classics such as Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, The Silence of the Lambs, and The Grapes of Wrath nowhere to be found for Indian consumers on one or both these platforms. Furthermore, these services continue the legacy of information feudalism to anointed countries around the world, leaving the rest condemned to modern-day cultural oblivion.

In India, paying Netflix customers must settle with being two whole seasons behind, if they’re fans of USA Network’s awful yet highly entertaining Suits, due to archaic licensing agreements between the TV channel and its Indian counterparts. Fans of the smooth-talking fraudster Mike Ross are left with no choice other than to con their way into watching the show from an unlicensed online source, in order to watch their favourite TV personality con his way into practicing law without a license.

If there ever is an end to piracy, or even a significant reduction to a point where it is insignificant, it will likely be when the content creators of the world come to terms with the demand for democratised, reasonably priced access for all. Most people are happier with legal, affordable, hassle-free access, as opposed to being paranoid about malware, dealing with dubious video resolutions, low quality audio, and waiting ten seconds to hit the play button on a website plastered with obnoxious ads about the things you wish you hadn’t Googled the night before.

Even Artem Vaulin, the Ukranian-Polish owner and operator of the world’s most popular torrent website Kickass Torrents, led the FBI to his real identity when his IP address was revealed through a legal download on iTunes. As if predestined by the gods of satirical providence, a man who built an empire on a mountain of illegally archived music and movies was caught, perhaps because he couldn’t resist the simplicity and convenience of a legal purchase when it’s available.

Perhaps that ought to be a lesson to content creators worldwide. Our wallets are waiting. For God’s sake… let us buy!

This post is sponsored by Palo Alto Networks.

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