April 14, 2024

The "Pirate Pyramid"

This month’s Wired runs a high-decibel piece by Jeff Howe, on topsites and their denizens:

When Frank … posted the Half-Life 2 code to Anathema, he tapped an international network of people dedicated to propagating stolen files as widely and quickly as possible.

It’s all a big game and, to hear Frank and others talk about “the scene,” fantastic fun. Whoever transfers the most files to the most sites in the least amount of time wins. There are elaborate rules, with prizes in the offing and reputations at stake. Topsites like Anathema are at the apex. Once a file is posted to a topsite, it starts a rapid descent through wider and wider levels of an invisible network, multiplying exponentially along the way. At each step, more and more pirates pitch in to keep the avalanche tumbling downward. Finally, thousands, perhaps millions, of copies – all the progeny of that original file – spill into the public peer-to-peer networks: Kazaa, LimeWire, Morpheus. Without this duplication and distribution structure providing content, the P2P networks would run dry.

The story paints this as a sort of organized-crime scene, akin to a drug cartel, in which a great many people conspire, via some kind of command-and-control network, to achieve the widest distribution of the product. If true, this would be good news for law enforcers – if they chopped off the organization’s head, “the P2P networks would run dry.”

But this is wrong way to interpret the facts, at least as I understand them. The topsites are exclusive clubs whose members compete for status by getting earlier, better content. The main goal is not to seed the common man’s P2P net, but to build status and share files within a small group. Smebody on the fringe of the group can grab a file and redistribute it to less exclusive club, as a way of building status within that lesser club. Then somebody on the fringe of that club can redistribute it again; and so on. And so the file diffuses outward from its source, into larger and less exclusive clubs, until eventually everybody can get it. The file is distributed not because of a coordinated conspiracy, but because of the local actions of individuals seeking status. The whole process is organized; but it’s organized like a market, not like a firm.

[It goes without saying that all of this is illegal. Please don’t mistake my description of this behavior for an endorsement of it. It’s depressing that this kind of disclaimer is still necessary, but I have learned by experience that it is.]

What puts some people at the top of this pyramid, and others at the bottom? It’s not so much that the people at the bottom are incapable of injecting content into the system; it’s just that the people at the top get their hands on content earlier. Content trickles down to the P2P nets at the bottom of the pyramid, often arriving there before the content is available by other means to ordinary members of the public. Once a song or movie is widely available, there’s no real reason for an ordinary user to rip their own copy and inject it.

The upshot is that enforcement against the top of the pyramid would have some effect, but much less than the Wired article implies. The main effect would be to delay the arrival of content in the big P2P networks, at least for a while, by blocking early leaks of content from the studios and production facilities. The files would still show up – there are just too many sources – but the copyright owners would gain a short interval of exclusivity before the content showed up on P2P. Certainly the P2P networks would not “run dry.”

Don’t get me wrong. Law enforcers should go after the people at the top of the pyramid. At least they would be making examples of the right people. But we should recognize that the rivers of P2P will continue to overflow.

UPDATE (7:25 PM): Jeff Howe, author of the Wired article, offers a response in the comments.


  1. The “Pirate Pyramid”

    Pero interpretar así los datos es un error, al menos tal y como yo los entiendo. Los sitios en la cima son clubs exclusivos cuyos miembros compiten por ganar el mayor status intentnado conseguir mejores contenidos antes que los demás….

  2. Interesting that some people don’t get the idea behind the P2P networks.
    The P2P system is a simple file-swapping system. There are some credit based systems, but in the main they are “free”. However, imagine a network where you only took and never left anything open for others to copy from you – everyone doing that means that there is no-one left to copy things from, and the network dies, as everyone is trying to take.
    Taking the logical view, if you are downloading from someone with three files, and you already have two of them, you can speed up your download of the last one by sharing the two you have, since that way, the people trying to get all three will download off you as well, freeing some bandwidth for your remaining download.
    Further, and less “logically”, people like to share. They even got them free, so what harm in passing them on again?
    On a final note, there are lots of files floating about. As you download a rare one, the newer systems let others start downloading those from you, as you are downloading from another. Indeed, BitTorrent is designed to do just this. I downloaded a rather nasty looking file with several videos about torture in/by China, and the “Great Firewall of China”. By downloading it, and seeding it for a while, I helped get the story of human rights abuse by the other superpower out a little more than before. Sure, there was probably some copyright infringement, but the greater good overrides this.

  3. Cypher,

    This last layer isn’t quite as crucial as the one proceeding it. Although space precluded me from detailing the “distro channels,” this is where the files really multiply in exponential proportions. The distro groups are like a release group, except they specialize in functioning like a multiplier. Distros spread files onto private *and* public FTP sites, Usenet groups and IRC channels. Getting them from these public servers is as easy as going to Google Groups and typing “X-Men” or “Halo 2” into the Usenet search engine. Generally, the “lamers,” which is to say newbies perusing such servers are still sharing their own collections through any manner of P2P network. It’s less that they’re motivated to spread the files downward than this occurs as a function of them storing their media in a shared file folder.

    On a sidenote, since time limits me from responding to all the various posts on all the various forums about the article, I’d like to respond to one particular criticism here: It’s been pointed out that the “warez” or “zeroday” scene has been around for decades, and that the article doesn’t reveal anything particularly new for anyone that’s ever been in the scene. This is correct. And the fact that, as far as my extensive research could turn up, no mainstream media had every written about it made the subject that much more ripe for journalistic treatment. As the substantial, impassioned response to the article suggests, a large majority of readers either were not aware of how the scene feeds P2P, or were at least unfamiliar with the rich subculture behind it.


  4. What I find remarkable in the Wired article is the involvement of insiders in the “entertainment industry”. The “IP leakage watchdog” is sponsoring a “topsite”. How do music albums and movies appear on P2P networks before their release dates?
    If you think this over, there are reasons to believe in conspiracy. Or would it be that even people in the “IP industry” agree that current copyright law should be loosened

  5. Fascinating. This pyramid is another example of the “natural” market dynamics of IP, absent copyright laws or their enforcement, in addition to the various non-illicit “open source” development groups, where mutual respect and reputation seem to be the currency. (Open source developers also have early access privileges, for another parallel — developers regularly build stuff from CVS sources, and get bugfixes the day the bug’s fixed; and people who want bugfixes urgently go to the CVS whereupon they are likely to take the further step of submitting input to the CVS at some point, and thereby becoming a developer…)

    The way to solve the “copyfight” is now obvious. Content creators must assume roles like OSS originators/developers, possibly achieving fame and industry job offers ala Linus Torvalds, or else roles like the zero-day content injectors at the top of these pyramids. Recording industry companies and similar publishing “middlemen” can remodel themselves into Sourceforges or into the exclusive clubs at various levels of a pyramid structure. The benefits for creating content would be early access to other content (even WIPs — CVS analogy) and reputation, and even contact with people you might fruitfully collaborate with. The benefits for paying for content (in a paid membership club) would be early access to content and maybe “value-adds”, e.g. durable non-digital forms of the content.

    Baen’s free library online is an example of a nonexclusive content-access club that appears to benefit authors, Baen, and fans all at once — and also a counterexample to the thesis of those far to the copyright, which seems to consist of “we MUST have ABSOLUTE control of distribution and better yet of use too!” and “Every infringing copy means a lost sale” and other such notions. They assume the worst misanthropic views of human nature, that if a person can get it for free nobody will choose to pay — or maybe it’s a myopic view, and says a lot about their own selves and motives. There’s a tendency to use our self-model as a first approximation to model the behavior of others, so it seems to mean the far copyright are simply afraid that everyone will act like they do — greedy and selfish!

    The existence of these phenomena suggest that absolutely reserved rights of copyright owners may not even be necessary at all, and at the very least, that much shorter copyright terms would be beneficial. Patents should probably be done away with altogether, along with the DMCA anti-circumvention clause, as they make completently independent works potentially criminal or infringing in a way that seems bogus, and can be replaced by the patenter copyrighting the blueprints, reference implementation, or whatever and licensing that to people who don’t want to repeat the R&D independently. Those that do do so ought to have free use of their implementation. Exemption to royalties for noncommercial use might be good too.

    The Wired article and its discussion also has grave implications for those who have staked everything on DRM — any DRM. One can now predict with confidence that the more heavily DRM’d a product is, the sooner it will appear in unrestricted forms on p2p networks. The stronger the DRM, the bigger a deal it is to be the first person to crack the DRM and release the first unrestricted copy, which makes for a more heated, higher-stakes race to be the first to get a cracked copy submitted to one of the exclusive clubs in the pyramid. The priority of the self-organizing darknetters will be on the most protected works, which will therefore fall first. Once a notoriously hard to crack product is freed, it will be a particular badge of honor to participate in the earlier stages of its propagation too in these communities, so they will spread far and wide. There’s already early evidence for this — HL2 is announced to use the new Steam DRM system, and not long after, not one but two high-profile leaks occur — first some source code, then an early but playable beta. Other high profile targets in the past have included Doom 3 and assorted copy-protected CDs. Anything with a big buzz (HL2, D3) or touted as having some sort of near-unbreakable DRM (HL2) is going to be a target of opportunity. DRM will attract would-be infringers, not repel them.

  6. Cypherpunk says

    Jeff, one thing I didn’t understand in your description is the motivation of the people who represent the last link in the chain, the ones who put the data onto the P2P networks. What do they get for it? Those networks aren’t oriented around a “quota” system or any kind of reputation. If I make something available on Kazaa I don’t get any credit for it. So why are people bothering to take that final step, and in such large numbers? People like your high school student “Kevin” are responsible for increasing the distribution from 10,000 copies up to one million. I gather that they’re still putting the content onto closed FTP sites and earning quota and points for doing so. But then who moves a million copies onto the P2P nets?

  7. It is important for me to point out that Ed is correct in the suppostion that the pirates working inside the scene are *not* taking orders, and are *not* working toward the goal of seeding P2P. They could care less whether the files are propagated at that level, so long as they transfer the files they’re “racing” quickly enough to earn: 1) credits for more downloads; and 2) acknowledgement from their peers in the scene, which leads to better access to even better sites. As in a market context, they are purely motivated by self-advancement.

    This point is important because I would argue it’s the most fascinating aspect of this “shadow” media distribution structure. No single person or group of people ever set out to create it. Rather, it manifested itself. I’d like to say that you misread the article, Ed. And in fact a close reading of my closing paragraph gets close to this point: “Like ants, curries are monomaniacal about tiny tasks — they copy and move files from place to place — but together they form a force so powerful that it threatens to displace the traditional forms of media distribution.” But that’s hardly explicit. In fact, I was much more explicit on this point in a section left on the cutting room floor. Ah, isn’t this always the writer’s lament.

    We could debate whether taking the topsites out would stem the flow of content. It’s true that all the content would eventually appear at some level of this network, but then, without the motivation to get it before it “streets,” the pyramid would have never come into existence, and the topsites are usually the only ones with the connections at studios, at cinemas, at labels, et. al. to accomplish this. But it’s a moot point. The topsites are difficult, maybe impossible to infiltrate. The larger point: illicit distribution of copyrighted goods will continue unabated, at least until the larger dynamics of the entertainment industry change, is the same.

  8. There are many groups out there that capture or rip TV shows and post them via FTP, newsgroups, IRC, BitTorrent, etc. The cap/rip group can sometimes be identified by an addition of a “trademark” (such as LOL) to the filename. Many popular shows have all episodes of every season available for download if you know where to look and some caps show-up before the scheduled air-date of the episode.
    Mr. X

  9. Cypherpunk says

    I was amazed to read how well organized the infrastructure is for putting these files onto the P2P networks in the first place. Apparently the notion that people are ripping and sharing their own files is largely a myth. Rather, there is an entire industry working to put those files out there, organized around a sort of barter system.

    In particular, the article claims that the only way for a file to successfully penetrate the P2P networks is to have this kind of underlying distribution network available. The P2P networks apparently don’t really stand alone. The only way content can be made available is to have hundreds of kids seeding the network with widespread copies.

    The new Harvard Law report on online content distribution, http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/media/content_and_control, makes a now-standard claim: “Even if DRM were able to preclude most people from distributing a given work, even one unencrypted copy can quickly propagate through a P2P system.” But the Wired article suggests otherwise. Without the “dark” distribution network to create the widespread seeds, it sounds like the P2P technology by itself does not produce effective file sharing.

  10. …and the press is best as misinterpretation. The last thing any of us wants to do is to wast cycles correcting over and over again some misconstrued statement in widely-viewed article.

  11. I’m not worried that it’s illegal to write what I wrote. I’m just being careful to avoid misinterpretations (and being in mind that misinterpretations are occasionally deliberate).

  12. I guess I’m ignorant or naive, or perhaps both. But in any case, why should Dr. Felten have to add a disclaimer to his commentary (this is illegal… yada yada yada). Is it against the law for me to describe how I view the p2p scene and then give it an endorsement? (If this is illegal then whatever happened to free speech … I was under the impression that citizens could voice disagreement with laws in this country ….)
    Or is it fear of some kind of a lawsuit? If this is the reason for the disclaimer, I would love to know how opinion pieces, like this one, make Dr. Felton vulnerable to legal action. Any lawyers in the house?