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2012: The Year File-Sharing Dies? Not quite…

Revised: 02.14.2012
 

Everybody likes free stuff, because getting something for free makes us happy. Be it a sample of a product at a store, or winning a prize in a contest, there isn’t a single person out there who would tell you they do not like getting things for free.

In today’s modern internet age, we have become especially accustomed to getting stuff for free. We can read a newspaper online for free. We can browse an encyclopedia online for free. We can watch videos online for free. We can publish our own blogs online for free. We can play games online for free. We have the entire world at our fingertips and almost all of it can be accessed for free.

However, there is no questioning that a problem has arisen; some of us have perhaps become a little too accustomed to getting stuff for free. After all, thanks to the internet, getting stuff for free – stuff which we would normally pay for – has become incredibly easy. To illegally download a song, TV show episode, or movie takes mere minutes. Millions of people all over the world take part in this act known as file-sharing.

Though we’re still in the early weeks of the year, 2012 has not been kind to the army of file-sharing users out there. We’ve seen sites shut down, others disable their file-sharing functionality, and legislation that tried to stifle the freedom of the internet in an effort to thwart online piracy. Legal woes and shutdowns such as these are nothing new when it comes to file-sharing. But this sudden increase in site closures and legal attacks started me thinking that perhaps file-sharing will soon disappear. Could 2012 be the year that file-sharing dies?

Here, take my files.

Internet file-sharing took off back in 1999 with the launch of Napster – the world’s first peer-to-peer file-sharing system. At launch, Napster focused almost exclusively on music, allowing users of the software to download the MP3 files of other users over the internet. It was the first file-sharing network that featured a simple, easy to use user interface, which contributed heavily to its popularity, and the promise of free digital music for everyone didn’t hurt either.

On its promise to deliver free music downloads, users flocked to the service. At its peak, Napster had 25 million users and over 80 million songs on its network. Though with such popularity came intense controversy; as artists and record companies became aware of what was happening online, they sought legal action against Napster.

Less than three years after launch, Napster was forced to shutdown in 2001. However by that time, the notion of sharing files online, and the joy of getting free music they would otherwise have to pay for, had taken over the minds of internet users, and they were not about to give that up. Users simply migrated to competing software, and it soon became apparent that although Napster had invented the game, they were not the only player.

Viva la Revolution!

They say the greatest form of flattery is imitation, and Napster met its fair share of competition online. Following the launch and popularity of Napster, many other peer-to-peer file-sharing services began cropping up online. Gnutella, eDonkey2000, Freenet, Kazaa, Poisoned, and Morpheus, among others, soon entered the file-sharing realm.

Despite the major victory won by the record companies in their suits against Napster, there was no stopping the online piracy movement. Users had already become hooked on illegally downloading free music, and they weren’t about to give up that privilege. When one door closes, another door opens, and peer-to-peer networks were not slowing down any time soon.

Bit by Bit…Torrent.

In 2001, the BitTorrent protocol was introduced by programmer Bram Cohen. BitTorrent differed from traditional file-sharing protocols, in that a user would download a file from multiple “seeds” simultaneously, thereby reducing the network and server impact of distributing large files. Think of it as a puzzle, with a hundred different people each contributing one piece to the puzzle until the puzzle is complete.

By 2003, BitTorrent clients and services were starting to take off, replacing the previous generation of file-sharing networks. Popular sites such as isoHunt and The Pirate Bay were launched during this time. The fact that BitTorrent made large file transfers easier, faster, and less strenuous led to an increase in the offering and popularity of video files. Soon it was easy to download a new release Hollywood movie (sometimes even pre-release) or to find the latest episode of your favorite TV show.

BitTorrent is still a predominant method of file-sharing today, and as of 2009, it is estimated that BitTorrent accounts for 40-70% of all internet traffic.

The Great File-Sharing Massacre of 2012.

To say file-sharing is illegal is a common misconception; it is not. Sharing copyrighted material, however, is. So by downloading a song, album, movie, TV show, game, or any other piece of intellectual property for free, you are committing a crime. This is what we call “piracy”, and the vast majority of online file-sharing can be classified as such.

Piracy is the reason why file-sharing and torrenting have been the target of so much legal action over the years. Record companies, television networks, and movie studios have been fighting pirates in order to protect their intellectual property – and their revenues. So far, piracy has persisted, managing to stick around through all of the legal turmoil.

But 2012 has started off on a different foot. There have been a number of signs in the early weeks of this year that have pointed to a much different, much bleaker, and much less free future for file-sharing and piracy.

SOPA, of course, was a big one; a piece of legislation aimed at cracking down on piracy. It should come as no surprise when I tell you that most major entertainment companies – including the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) – supported SOPA. It was a bill backed by Hollywood, drafted by people who do not understand the internet, with the sole purpose of stopping piracy and protecting revenues. After much debate and controversy, SOPA was withdrawn on January 20th.

Soon after the panic surrounding SOPA subsided, the U.S. Department of Justice filed charges against MegaUpload, shutting down the website and arresting founder Kim Dotcom. The charges claimed that MegaUpload was responsible for aiding the online piracy movement, and was the direct cause of “more than half a billion dollars in harm to copyright owners.” MegaUpload and its subsidiary MegaVideo have been offline for nearly a month.

This set off widespread panic among similar file-sharing sites, with many choosing to take measures to ensure their continued presence in the world. FileSonic, for example, disabled all file-sharing functionality on their website, choosing instead to rebrand themselves as a cloud-based personal storage and back-up service.

Similarly, The Pirate Bay – one of the most popular torrent websites on the internet – announced that they would be deleting all torrent files on February 29th, and replacing them with magnet links. They also recently switched their domain from thepiratebay.com to thepiratebay.se in order to further distance themselves from U.S. jurisdiction.

Popular torrent search engine btjunkie closed up shop just last week, replacing their homepage with a simple splash page that reads “btjunkie, 2005-2012”. Ex.ua – a Ukrainian file-sharing site – was also shut down at the apparent request of a few high-profile tech companies, including Adobe and Microsoft. Near the end of last year, Google announced that they were implementing a “piracy filter”, which would hide all BitTorrent and file-sharing sites from autocomplete and Instant search results.

Piracy lives on…

Could this be a sign of things to come? Might we be heading into a world without file-sharing? Could 2012 be the year that file-sharing dies? In short, probably not. The MegaUpload shutdown seems to have had little effect on piracy and the file-sharing community, with users simply seeking out alternative means to their end. So far, a few sites like Putlocker and Novamov have succeeded in filling that void, absorbing the extra “market share” abandoned by MegaUpload.

However, if these last few weeks are any indication, Hollywood is not done fighting either. They’ve got lawyers chomping at the bit, ready to go after any site found to be harbouring copyrighted material. MegaUpload will not be the last file-sharing site to go down this year. Some will choose the FileSonic route, and head down the straight and narrow path. Others, like The Pirate Bay, will choose to rebrand themselves as “search engines” to avoid legal troubles.

But as I said, “When one door closes, another door opens”. Just as LimeWire, Kazaa, and others followed in the footsteps of Napster, so too will someone step up and take the spot of MegaUpload. If you like stealing stuff online, don’t worry: piracy is sticking around. Hollywood may have won a few battles, but the war rages on.

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