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A torrent of troubles

Torrent sites are finding it harder to escape the eyes of the law. Photo: Divya Medikonda

Torrent sites are finding it harder to escape the eyes of the law. Photo: Divya Medikonda  

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Until a few weeks ago, Artem Vaulin, a 30-year-old Ukrainian living in Poland, allegedly ran a website that received over 50 million unique visitors each month and generated over $17 million dollars in revenue annually. The site, KickassTorrents, was a BitTorrent-based file-sharing portal — the largest of its kind — where users freely shared everything from the latest Hollywood movies to schematics for 3D-printable handguns. Vaulin is today lodged in a Polish prison, awaiting extradition to the U.S. on charges of copyright infringement and money laundering.

A 50-page affidavit filed by U.S. Homeland Security reveals a long-running investigation into the website, better known as KAT. Ironically, the crucial piece of evidence that finally tied Vaulin to the website was a legal purchase he made on Apple’s iTunes platform. He later used the same IP address to log into the KAT Facebook account, which sealed his fate.

Less than a fortnight after Vaulin’s arrest, Torrentz.eu, a search engine that has been dubbed ‘the Google for torrents’ also folded. Details are sketchy, as the site’s administrator has refused to comment, but the threat of potential law enforcement action appears to be scaring digital pirates a lot more than it used to in the past. “Enforcement actions are nothing new really, they have been going on for more than a decade,” explains Ernesto Van Der Sar, Editor-in-Chief of TorrentFreak, a website that is dedicated to tracking the BitTorrent scene. “However, the criminal prosecution of an alleged operator of a foreign website in the U.S. is new. Most previous cases have been of a civil nature.”

KAT, which has been around since 2008, only came to the fore when ThePirateBay, one of the most illustrious names in online file-sharing, was victim of a massive raid in December 2014. Since then, many more marquee names associated with BitTorrent, including YIFY, EZTV and Popcorn Time have all been taken down.

According to Mishi Choudhary, Executive Director of the Indian arm of the Software Freedom Law Center, rights-holders’ rhetoric is marginalising BitTorrent as a whole despite its potential to be a force for good. “Walt Disney, MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) and their other allies’ influence on the U.S. Congress is well known, ergo, the spike in the pressure on markets everywhere to check anything that they don’t approve of.” The MPAA and RIAA are trade lobbies associated with large media firms that have lobbied extensively for aggressive enforcement of copyright protections.

The criminal prosecution of Vaulin is set to create a precedent in copyright infringement cases. He faces five years in jail for each count of copyright infringement and an additional 20 for money laundering. To put that into context, consider that the founders of ThePirateBay, one of the most high-profile BitTorrent sites of all time, received sentences of a year each when they were tried by a Swedish court in 2009.

While the emergence of platforms such as Netflix and Amazon Video have eaten into the BitTorrent user-base, Van Der Sar contends that the demand for pirated content is still on the rise in some parts of the world. “Legal alternatives are decreasing people’s motivation to pirate. However, there are still a lot of countries where legal options are lacking, limited and/ or expensive,” he said. “Change will be slow and gradual, and with more people coming online in developing countries, piracy will probably remain an issue for a very long time.”

Choudhary goes a step further, suggesting that pirates are actually helping rather than harming content creators. She points to the examples of Paulo Coelho, “the guy whose books are sold at every traffic light in India has embraced free online sharing” and HBO executive Jeff Bewkes, who recently told investors that the fact that ‘Game of Thrones’ is the most pirated show on earth is “better than winning an Emmy”.

The network effect of piracy, which helps extend the reach of content to otherwise inaccessible audiences, is well documented. A 2010 report of the U.S. Government Accountability Office acknowledged as much, concluding that piracy increased demand, raised revenues in complementary businesses, and fostered innovation. But within the industry, people like Bewkes and Coelho largely remain exceptions. The ivory towers of the large media houses are still filled with legions of nameless, faceless suits who would like nothing better than to deliver some good old-fashioned justice of the seas to the pirates of our times. However, they face an uphill battle in trying to convince the masses that stealing a film is the modern-day equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew.

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Printable version | Dec 11, 2019 11:17:31 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/magazine/A-torrent-of-troubles/article14569681.ece

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