So you think piracy is primarily taking place on BitTorrent, eMule and Gnutella? Think again. There is a whole parallel universe out there with people trading huge amounts of DVDs, TV shows, warez and porn. Five terabytes of new content every single day, to be precise. Welcome to Usenet, the original piracy hotbed. And especially this time of year with the Hollywood screeners out for the Academy members, its especially busy (True Grit showed up just yesterday).
Usenet is a little bit like P2P’s estranged uncle. People started trading files over newsgroups around the time when Napster founder Shawn Fanning attended kindergarden. The face of Usenet has changed dramatically in recent years, though. It has become big business for some. It has been under legal scrutiny, but escaped major lawsuits. Will the next step be Hollywood-friendly commercialization?
Usenet has been around since the early eighties as a kind of decentralized publishing and discussion platform. It consists of thousands of newsgroups, most of which are somewhat of a mix between a mailing list and a public bulletin board. Newsgroups can be accessed with specialized newsreader applications or though web gateways. Then simply find a divx newsgroup among the 63,000 or so groups and you are off to the races.
The technical infrastructure of Usenet is a loose worldwide network of servers that exchange messages on a regular basis. Its not too much different than a public library. In fact, it IS the internets public library. Users can subscribe to one of these groups and automatically download new messages. Sounds familiar? Exactly: Newsgroups are in many ways similar to RSS feeds. And newsgroups, just like feeds, can be used for much more than just distributing text.
People started to trade dirty pictures over Usenet early on (BBS). Warez has also always been a part of the medium, and some of the first MP3s actually found their way online in newsgroups. Nowadays video makes up for most of Usenet’s traffic. Some news servers clock up to three terabytes of traffic per day.
Usenet provider Giganews.com announced it offers access to nearly three billion messages. The most popular content is still porn, but mainstream entertainment is catching up quickly: Groups like alt.binaries.movies.divx cause up to 15 percent of all non-text Usenet data.
Many universities have simply stopped carrying these binary newsgroups to reduce their traffic bill. Some ISPs have instead opted to meter Usenet-related bandwidth, restricting access to one or two gigabytes per month — not enough for hardcore users. Third-party Usenet providers fill the gap with more generous plans that cost between 10 and 25 dollars per month. This is one of the reasons why all of us will eventually get ‘metered’ by our ISP (Comcast and some Time-Warner systems are testing the waters with this now).
The Usenet industry has boomed since entertainment companies started to go after file sharers. From 2002 through 2003, a number of BitTorrent services were established, including Suprnova.org, isoHunt, TorrentSpy, and The Pirate Bay. In 2002, the RIAA was filing lawsuits against Kazaa users. As a result of such lawsuits, many universities added file sharing regulations in their school administrative codes (though some students managed to circumvent them during after school hours). With the shut down of eDonkey in 2005, eMule became the dominant client of the eDonkey network. In 2006, police raids took down the Razorback2 eDonkey server and temporarily took down The Pirate Bay. Pro-piracy demonstrations took place in Sweden in response to the Pirate Bay raid. In 2009, the Pirate Bay trial ended in a guilty verdict for the primary founders of the tracker. The decision was appealed, leading to a second guilty verdict in November 2010. Usenet providers tend to keep no logs about downloaders, and you only need one uploader to facilitate tens of thousands of downloads. Some Usenet providers have been targeting file sharing users with aggressive advertising campaigns on torrent websites and P2P forums that promise encryption and anonymity. The dirty little secret of the industry is that some of these self-proclaimed bad-boys also power the Usenet services of major ISPs.
Entertainment companies have been somewhat helpless in their reactions to the Usenet surge. The MPAA has previously sued websites that indexed movies in newsgroups, but has stayed shy of going after Usenet server operators themselves. The reason for this is that most Usenet companies are protected by the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, and any legal precedence could endanger other piracy cases. Rights holders in other countries have been more aggressive, but haven’t been able to put a dent into Usenet usage either.
Former Usenet provider GUBA has tried to go a different route, revamping its platform to offer paid movie downloads next to user-generated content and a small section of filtered Usenet content. There also was a large Japanese and Korean audience on Guba — something that doesn’t really translate too well to US-only movie sales.
An argument MIGHT be able to be made for some of the independent titles that never ever see the light of day as to use usenet as a way to get word-of-mouth, but for the most part it never works. Usenet is primarily used by those who know how to use it as a tool to grab software and TV episodes and movies for free. Of course it does come with some dangers. A lot of software uploaded by some people contain malicious viruses and .exe’s. You need to have a well protected PC and a lot of experience with how to look out for these traps. However, one day, this will come to an end once the Comcasts of the world ‘meter’ us all. Its one thing to buy a $10.00 a month account to giganews, quite another to pay $25.00 a month for 5 gigs of downloadable content – especially when the movies are now being uploaded in High Def. One regular movie download now is 700 megs, the High-Def one is more like 3 gigs. This will push more users of this kind of service to the Netflix of the world to ‘stream’ the content for a fee far less than buying 25 gigs from Comcast or another ISP.