Busted! A Look at BitTorrent Copyright Complaints

It’s a classic case. A user finds out about the magic of BitTorrent, and then starts downloading (and uploading). Our user starts downloading a lot – like, along the lines of Terabytes a month.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

The problem is, the user doesn’t know where or when to stop. Then the inevitable happens, as this user gets a cease and desist order. So what went wrong for our fictional entertainment enthusiast?

There’s a number of commonly held beliefs over how people either avoid litigation or get caught downloading an alleged copyrighted file. One commonly held belief is that simply installing a blocking program such as Peer Guardian 2 will grant instant immunity from copyright collectives and anti-piracy organizations. Another commonly held belief is that private BitTorrent sites will allow you to fall off of the anti-piracy radar completely simply because it’s an invitation-only system. There is also one idea that, because it’s a porn file, there’ll be instant safety because the porn industry doesn’t really go after BitTorrent users. How well do these beliefs really hold water?

Slyck went out and searched for BitTorrent related “cease and desist” letters. Filtering it down to BitTorrent and figuring out which site landed a user in trouble may seem like a tall order, but with a little imagination, and a site called Google, the task quickly becomes a question of how many letters is needed. Slyck sampled 100 demand letters, 94 of these chosen at random, the other six taken from the EliteTorrents story, given that it was a high profile case to begin with.

The findings proved interesting. In the BitTorrent cases Slyck unearthed, which typically consisted of a warning letter sent by an ISP, 63 of these websites were public websites, 33 originated from private websites, and 4 could not be determined.

Not surprisingly, a pattern was forming as Slyck gathered evidence. ThePirateBay attracted the most attention with 28 of the “cease and desist” letters. Coming in at second was a tie between two private trackers at 12 letters. These sites are Demonoid and Sladinki007. The 4th largest culprit goes by the name of TorrentBox with 6 demands out of the 100 collected.

Peer Guardian 2 operates by a simple premise. A large list of known IP (Internet Protocol) addresses supposedly used by anti-piracy organizations is constantly compiled. The list is then used as a blacklist and all IP’s on the list get blocked, thus “protecting” the user. So if a user downloaded and installed the magical software, would that have saved him? Hardly. As one incident describes, users can still be at the receiving end of a cease and desist order with the software running.

Porn is often said to be the reason the internet exists. Some believe that downloading porn is safe and the likelihood of getting a cease and desist order is non-existent. While the sample shows that downloading more “popular” content is a much riskier proposition, porn cease and desist cases have occurred. In fact, a porn themed tracker known as SexTorrent had two cases of cease and desist letters. While less risky, downloading copyrighted porn is not free from legal risk.

That leaves the private BitTorrent website belief. Some users have been seen responding to other users posting complaints about receiving legal complaints with something along the lines of, “Well, obviously you were using a public torrent site. Use a private site and you’ll never get caught!”

How does a private site work? A private site limits access to content available on the BitTorrent tracker. Only “invited” users are allowed to access the tracker. All users on the website are typically asked to maintain a certain ratio. For a while, most sites demanded a 1.00 ratio minimum, meaning all users had to upload at least as much as they download. If a user failed to do so, they risked being banned from the site. A flaw in this philosophy was pointed out, as many found that it’s mathematically impossible for all users to maintain a 1.0 share ratio. Thus, many private sites have dropped the requirement to ratios like 0.5 instead.

The theory behind limiting access dictates that any anti-piracy organization will not have the ability to access the website, let alone have the capability of obtaining and litigating IP addresses on the tracker. It sounds great, but how did it start?

BitTorrent, the technology itself, has been around since 2003 and rose to popularity by around 2004. Public trackers were quickly established, but the popularity also led the response of anti-piracy organizations. Major websites like SuprNova were pressured into closure. Consequently, many BitTorrent users also felt the legal pressure from these organizations. One response was to make a closed BitTorrent website to avoid any chance of litigation. These websites rose to popularity roughly a year later after public websites became all the rage.

Has it worked? Have private sites baffled the anti-piracy organizations so users can download whatever they want? That is a matter of discussion with plenty of evidence supporting both sides of debate. There are indeed cases where users get letters from their ISPs for using these allegedly safe websites, but from our findings, a user is more likely to receive a “cease and desist” letter by using a public BitTorrent site.

However this doesn’t in any way absolve private BitTorrent sites, as the usage of Demonoid and Sladinki007 both resulted in a substantial number of “cease and desist” letters. Additionally, it’s worth considering that The Pirate Bay is a significantly larger site than Demonoid, therefore by virtue of this fact will trigger more “cease and desist” letters. It wouldn’t be a stretch of the imagination to infer that the ratio of “cease and desist” letters per user on a private site isn’t much different than a public one.

Then there’s the technological side of things. A private BitTorrent site functions differently from a public BitTorrent website. Since there is a fear of “leeching” (meaning, downloading without uploading), all private sites track what users upload and download and save this information to a database. Many public sites are the opposite, where records pertaining to sharing are typically deleted.

A worst case scenario for a BitTorrent tracking website is when the servers are raided by local police for later examination. If a server containing a public website is raided, the IPs would likely merely be recent records – if any at all. It would be difficult to tell who used the website most frequently. On the other hand, if the server contained a private BitTorrent website, the entire database and, thus, history of all users, would be stored on the server as well. However it should be noted that there have been no public enforcement actions as a result of a BitTorrent server raid.

Perhaps one thing might shed some light on the issues. It’s the relationship between popularity and potential litigation. ThePirateBay is undoubtedly the highest profile website in the BitTorrent community. It may be why it has gained the most attention for alleged copyright infringement in the eyes of the copyright collectives. Popularity may not always be good news for BitTorrent users – a trend that could potentially affect private BitTorrent websites as well as public BitTorrent websites in the future.

Perhaps the most anomalous website is Sladinki007, which tied Demonoid for the 2nd largest BitTorrent litigation hotspot on the web. Sladinki007 isn’t exactly a website that features a web 2.0 design and isn’t necessarily a high profile website either. Perhaps its low profile status may have gained unwanted attention from both users and anti-piracy organizations. One may speculate that newer users may not recognize the tracker and assume there’ll be safety through obscurity. Looking at the Sladinki007 website suggests that it’s merely a service that contains several operating trackers for anyone to use. This site runs three trackers, suggesting that it is actually a very large BitTorrent operation.

Below is the sampling of cease and desist letters that Slyck researched:

ThePirateBay.org (public): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28

Demonoid (private): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

Sladinki007 (private): 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12

EliteTorrents (private): 1-6

TorrentBox (public): 1 2 3 4 5 6

MiniNova (public indexing site): 1 2 3 4

xDVDz (public): 1 2

zerotracker (public): 1 2

sextorrent (public): 1 2

Single Case incidences: (other)
souptracker (private)
emuparadise (public)
KongIsKing (other)
SmarTorrent (private)
torrent-download (public)
BitTorrentTracker (other)
DVDQuorum (Private)
TGBus (public)
qltrack (other)
h33t (public)
frozen-layer (public)
EZTV (public)
podtropolis (public)
tjgam.enoth (public)
ISOHunt (public)
tracker.torrent.to (public)

One thing is clear from the “cease and desist” letters that we’ve collected. No matter which site you travel to, no matter what you download or which backwater site you believe is safe, chances are that the prying eyes of copyright enforcement aren’t too far behind. Watch your back, Jack.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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