02 January 2005

The Shadow Internet part II

From Wired.com, by contributing editor Jeff Howe (jeffhowe@wiredmag.com).

Forest runs his business from the first floor of his rural Connecticut home. He's in his mid-40s but moves with jerky, adolescent energy. His brown hair is in perpetual disarray, and he pads around his office with bare feet, dressed in cargo shorts and a faded polo. Gold and platinum albums from his days as a producer at Island Records, MCA, and Arista line one wall. A baroque array of computer equipment fills the next, including 13 CPUs and 16 external hard drives (for a total of 3 terabytes of storage). His desk runs the length of the room and supports five full-size LCD displays. I hear a soft ping. "That tells me a movie just made its first appearance on a topsite." He points to a window on the monitor. It shows an innocent-looking list of files from an FTP site. The uppermost file says, "Hellboy.SCREENER.Proper.READ NFO PRE VCD." Translation: The DVD of one of the year's biggest box office hits has been pirated two months before its intended release date. "The FBI would kill to be sitting here looking at this," he says.

Even first-run movies get ripped. "Remember what happened to The Hulk?" he asks. On June 6, two weeks before its official release, a near-final version of The Hulk showed up online. To hear studio executives tell it, the bootleg went straight to the P2P networks and spread like a contagion.

"Bullshit," says Forest. "Trying to distribute The Hulk through the P2Ps would take months, not hours." That's because files on the public file-sharing networks, where no single node is much more powerful than the next, spread at a glacial pace. Furthermore, when users connect to a P2P network - FastTrack, for example - they connect only to a small proportion of the number of other users connected at the same time. So unless a topsite seeds a file across the P2P network, the odds are slim that someone searching for a copy will actually find it.

Forest pushes a hand through his hair, leaving it standing on end, and rotates in his Aeron to look me in the eye. "Here's what actually happened: Universal gave the workprint to its Manhattan ad agency. Then the print got to SMF. And bam!" SMF, Forest explains, is a piracy group that specializes in acquiring movies in theatrical release.

Before the folks at SMF could release the movie to a topsite, they had to compress it - from roughly 9 Gbytes to 700 Mbytes, small enough to fit on a single CD. Now the film drops. Forest won't say to which topsite SMF first posted The Hulk, only that "SMF had affiliations with certain sites, so it must have been one of those."

Within an hour, word had spread that The Hulk had appeared on the topsites, and the "races" began - copying and distributing the files to as many other servers as possible, as quickly as possible. "The races are over like that," says Forest, snapping his fingers. "It's amazing."

Soon, The Hulk was working its way down the pyramid onto slightly less exclusive sites called dumps. "These sites are a little slower, and they aren't getting stuff first," explains Forest. "On the other hand, they're getting a lot more traffic." With as much as several terabytes of data storage, the dumps are the workhorses of the distribution process, storing hundreds of thousands of media files filtered down from the topsites and rolling them to the next layer of the pyramid, the distribution channels.

In 24 hours, SMF's single version of The Hulk had metastasized into at least 50,000 copies. Within 72 hours, the movie was all over the most popular P2P networks. Before it reached even a single shared file folder on Kazaa, Forest estimates there were already several hundred thousand copies in circulation, guaranteeing that casual computer users would be able to find and download it easily.

One of Forest's computers pipes up again. Another bootleg has just started its race down the pyramid.

Movie pirates get their booty from one of three sources: industry insiders, projectionists, or agents placed inside disc-stamping plants and retail outlets. "Half the kids in the scene work at Best Buy or Blockbuster to get their hands on stuff they can release," says Frank. "At the factory, maybe 15 percent of CDs and DVDs are defective," says Forest, "usually just because the label is off a little bit." They're dumped into a rubbish bin, ripe for the picking.

Release groups break down broadly by medium - videogame, film, music, television - and then often into genre. One release group, for instance, specializes in obscure Japanese anime. Another works exclusively in Xbox games. Every release group has the same ultimate goal: Beat the street date of a big-name album, videogame, or movie by as much time as possible.

In 2003, Frank and his friends started a release group devoted to first-run movies. They placed an online ad, and a projectionist in Maryland responded. The projectionist, who never told Frank his name, proposed to send them the movies shown in his theater in exchange for free downloads from the topsites. Frank's posse wanted to test the guy first - standard procedure for a release group. "We had to know he wasn't a narc," says Frank, "and that he could get us quality product on a regular basis."

Frank's projectionist passed this test by providing the group with a high-quality copy of Spy Kids 3D: Game Over. The bootleg was posted the day after it hit theaters. Theaters get movies several days in advance so that exhibitors can check for defects in the reels. "Our dude would just run the film before anyone got to work, and record it from the booth," he says. Frank and his friends christened their group "MaTinE." Because their supplier - the projectionist - could get them high-quality recordings, MaTinE got noticed. "Eventually, we were putting our movies on one of the best topsites in the world," says Frank. He won't tell me the name of the site, noting it got busted by the FBI. "I can't have them thinking I put the heat on them, know what I mean?"

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