Ellis Ly has amassed an eclectic catalogue of movies and TV shows on his computer. Over the years, he’s used dozens of peer-to-peer file-sharing programs and systems to download content. The Simon Fraser University computing-science student says that over the years he’s come to prefer BitTorrent.
“I do recommend people use it,” Ly told the Georgia Straight by phone. “There are good [BitTorrent] applications out there. And most of them are all open-source, so it doesn’t cost you anything.”
The BitTorrent protocol arrived on the Internet in 2001, around the time that Napster, the pioneering file-sharing service, shut down after losing a legal battle with the music industry. According to an October report by Sandvine, an Ontario-based network-equipment company, BitTorrent is now the dominant file-sharing protocol “everywhere except Latin America”.
Using BitTorrent is relatively simple. Floating around the Internet are copies of myriad movies, TV episodes, and songs. Through a BitTorrent search engine, such as the Pirate Bay, people find links to them and then use free software, like Vuze, to download the files. The more people “seeding” a particular file from their computer back onto the web, the faster the downloads.
Even though peer-to-peer file-sharing systems offer copyrighted material, that hasn’t stopped BitTorrent from flourishing.
“Since elementary school, even kindergarten, we were taught that sharing is caring. So what exactly is wrong to share what we have with others?” Ly said. “File-sharing is something that everyone can get ahold of. It’s just that there are a lot of people out there that are still not aware of it, but it’s not that hard to use.”
Although Ly favours BitTorrent for sharing files on the Internet, there are alternatives. Millions turn to peer-to-peer network Gnutella to share files through software like the now-defunct LimeWire.
LimeWire was one of the most popular file-sharing applications until it shut down in October. That’s when more than a dozen record companies, including Warner Bros. Records, won a court injunction in the U.S. ordering it to cease operations because copyrighted material was being shared on the service without their permission.
Soon after LimeWire’s servers went dormant, clones like FrostWire began to fill the void.
Vancouver-based isoHunt has had its share of legal woes. The site functions as a search engine that allows peer-to-peer users to connect with each other and find BitTorrents to download. In December 2009, a U.S. court ruled that the site was infringing on copyright laws and demanded that it shut down.
“In the U.S., we are going to appeal,” isoHunt founder Gary Fung told the Straight by phone. “Right now, there is not much to say than the appeal is getting started. In Canada, we are also fighting the Canadian recording industry, and we are also starting [legal] action in that.”
Fung insists that his site operates as a search engine like Google and that the company can’t control the nature of the content found through it. He believes information should flow freely online.
“File-sharing gives people the freedom to share what they want,” Fung said. “File-sharing is logically the next step in the Internet’s evolution, in the sense that it decentralizes distribution. Anyone that wants to distribute can distribute whatever they want.”
According to Fung, although there has been bad blood between file-sharing services and the film, television, and music industries, in the end everyone will have to kiss and make up.
“File-sharing will become more mainstream and all the lawsuits being launched against users or people like us, the technologists, well, we will have to find a way to reconcile our differences,” Fung said. “And find a new means of distributing content not just for independents but for the big companies that are suing us.”
While big companies are not on board with free access to their copyrighted material, they are cuddling up to the iTunes Store as a means of selling their content digitally. Since 2003, more than 10 billion songs have been sold through Apple’s online media store.
Richard Rosenberg, professor emeritus of computer science at the University of British Columbia, told the Straight more and more people are willing to pay for content. He believes it will continue to get harder for people to share copyrighted content online.
If the federal Conservative government’s Bill C-32—which seeks reforms to Canada’s Copyright Act that are favoured by the music and film industries—becomes law, he would be right. In the future, Rosenberg said file sharers will have to get used to the idea of buying content from online stores.
“The business world is not going to be sleeping,” Rosenberg said by phone from his Vancouver home. “The bigger it [file-sharing] gets and the more of a threat it becomes to traditional marketplaces, the more effort is devoted to passing laws and creating structures which allow people who think they should or who created the material to control it.”
However, Fung maintained that every time one file-sharing service is killed, another will replace it.
“With any file-sharing site you try to shut down, a new file-sharing site is bound to pop up, and that has happened in the past—with Napster, then Kazaa,” Fung said. “There is no way you can shut file-sharing down.”