02 January 2005

The Shadow Internet part III

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

The quality of bootlegged films varies, depending on the technology used to capture the original reel. The best are produced using expensive TV studio equipment that can convert film to video. The next best are "telesyncs," copies of a movie in which the visuals have been captured by camcorder but the audio comes directly from a patch into the projector. "The top telesync groups, like Centropy, VideoCD, and TCF, are using $10,000 camcorders they get directly from Japan, cams you can't find in the US," says Frank. The least desirable releases are "cams," made by an audience member with a camcorder.

I ask Frank how his group could afford such exotic toys. "People buy them for us," he says, as if this explains everything. "Usually, these people were in the scene at one time, and now they just want free downloads without having to contribute." As it turns out, much of the extensive hardware - from superfast processors to servers with terabytes of storage - are donated by these well-heeled patrons. "Does Bruce Forest do that?" I ask. "I don't know," Frank says, laughing. "What did Bruce tell you?"

In fact, Forest freely admits to being a supplier. "I have bought everything from hard drives to complete computers for various people in the scene. I've probably bought 15 camcorders alone." He says he considers it a business expense, and writes it off on his taxes.

Whatever the original source - stamping plant, movie theater, or local Blockbuster - the film has to be properly prepared for distribution over the networks. Converting analog to digital is a difficult, time-consuming process. And getting it into a form that can be easily compressed into a digital box many times smaller than its original size is an even bigger undertaking. If it isn't done well, a topsite will reject the file. "Quality control is the number one job of the release groups," says Forest. "Topsites will only take a file that fits a long list of specifications. It basically has to be perfect."

To make sure it is, release groups rely on highly skilled technicians responsible for compressing and packaging the media file. As Forest and I watch the ripped copy of Hellboy, he pauses the movie. "Look at this," he says. A massive fight has just taken place, and Hellboy is perched on a bridge overlooking a devastated cityscape. It's been raining, and the havoc is reflected in a puddle, into which he stares deeply. "Oh my God. Look at that reflection. Do you have any idea how hard that is to capture?"

Different scenes require different treatments. "It's almost like using a paintbrush," says Forest. "A good ripper will know exactly how to apply the codec properly." A codec, or compression-decompression algorithm, is a method of reducing file size to ease its transfer over the Internet. Video is normally compressed using variations of MPEG codecs. A serious ripper will adjust the bitrate of compression in every scene of a movie to account for changing hue and lighting.

Toby is a master ripper. At 22, he's got a big man's frame but looks malnourished, like he doesn't get enough vegetables. He spends most of his time preparing movies for the Netflix Project. Started by an anonymous donor - again, an angel investor willing to devote money but not time to media piracy - the Netflix Project aims to archive every film offered by the subscription service. "Netflix offers about 25,000 movies," says Toby. "We've got maybe half of them." Each time Toby finishes condensing and packaging a movie, it gets placed on a central server. The archive is free for members who score a password and can get through the encryption. (Asked for comment, Netflix politely declined.)

I'd been told Toby would be cagey, but I find him funny and sweet. In 2000, he moved to Atlanta to attend college, but after spending a year and a half holed up in his dorm room ripping and burning, he flunked out. "Computer science is impossible," he says. "But I didn't really go to class, so part of it might be my fault, sort of."

Two weeks before the release of A Perfect Circle's new album, Thirteenth Step, Kevin races home after high school each day, goes down to his basement, and checks various release sites to see if someone has posted it. Kevin resides a few levels down the pyramid from the topsite operators; he's a courier for a couple release groups dealing in emo and hardcore rips, and A Perfect Circle is the file du jour.

Usually such a sought-after property first appears on sites far more exclusive and glamorous than the ones Kevin has access to, but he's hopeful a copy will show up soon. Couriers like Kevin are the grunts of the system, but without the "curries" transferring and duplicating files, the massive distribution network would break down.

Finally Kevin checks a site telling him that a rip of Thirteenth Step has just been uploaded to a secure FTP site - a week before it hits the stores. He curses under his breath. More than two minutes have elapsed since the file first appeared. The race is on, and Kevin is already at the back of the pack. He opens FlashFXP - a program that allows him to directly transfer files - and begins copying the CD to as many sites as he can. Then he sits back to watch the race. Everything now depends on the whimsy of Internet traffic and the speed of the server farms whose bandwidth he is pirating.

With his quick, eager intelligence and, more important, a high degree of focus, Kevin spends hours at a stretch performing the minute tasks of copying and transferring files, usually to networks in the middle levels of the pyramid. It's through grunts like him that a song proliferates from 10,000 copies to 1 million. The night A Perfect Circle's CD was posted, Kevin stayed up late spreading the file around the Net. The curries competing against him must have gotten stuck behind some double-wide trailer of a packet, because Kevin's credits poured in.

Credits are how the curries - and most everyone else - get paid. Back in the early days of the scene, when there were maybe 100 dedicated geeks trading copies of The Last Ninja over their Commodore 64s, the rule was established that site members had to upload one unit (kilobytes at first, now megs or even gigs) for every three they download. The rule creates an incentive to obtain and release, and it's this odd form of greed that drives the scene. It's true, as Forest likes to point out, that no one gets paid (unless they strike up relations with for-profit Chinese bootleggers, which is considered bad form). But they do get a lot of free stuff - movies, music, games, and software - without having to deal with the spyware, phony files, and traffic jams that plague the public P2P networks.

In fact, pretty much everyone joins the races from time to time. It's how the pirates while away their idle hours - the release group operator waiting for a new movie to be delivered, the ripper biding time while his gigabyte-sized files compress. Yet the best racers aren't even downloading all the pirate media they have access to. They have credits to burn, but that's not all that drives them. "It's about being the fastest," Frank says.

The kids in the scene aren't trying to bomb the system. They don't care a whit whether major labels suffer more from file-sharing than indie labels, or if a ban on prerelease DVDs affects Miramax's chances at the Academy Awards. They do this because it feels mildly rebellious, like smoking a doobie behind the local Kroger or setting off the school fire alarm - and because it's fun.

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. In fact, Forest believes the scene will eventually go legit, and he's even started a company, called Jun Group, that uses the topsites to promote movies, musicians, and TV shows. "The topsites don't care where their files come from, as long as no one else has them," he says. Last summer Jun Group dropped a collection of live videos and MP3s from Steve Winwood on the topsites. "We got 2.9 million downloads," says Forest, "and album sales took off."

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