Stuart Freen is a JD candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
This past week Mininova.org, one of the largest public file-sharing sites out there, finally shut its doors. After a legal fight with BREIN (the Dutch music and film industry’s anti-piracy arm) earlier this year, Mininova has now removed all infringing torrent files and is only hosting legal content. In August, a Netherlands court held that Mininova’s notice-and-takedown policies were insufficient and ordered the operators to remove all infringing torrents within three months or face stiff fines. After spending the time experimenting with various software filtering techniques the operators have apparently thrown in the towel and shut the site down. While this is clearly a big coup for anti-piracy groups in the Netherlands and worldwide – Mininova at its peak had over 5 million visitors a day and ranked as the 92nd most popular site on the internet – it’s unclear whether this takedown will have the dramatic effect they hope.
A quick web search for “free bit torrents” reveals plenty of other public bit torrent sites are still available, including the massively popular Canadian site isoHunt. There is a definite trend of “shut one down, ten more pop up in its place” with file-sharing sites. Mininova itself was created in the wake of the shutdown of the last bit torrent megasite Suprnova.org. One has to wonder if the anti-piracy groups are fighting a hopeless battle in their efforts to shut down mainstream popular torrent sites.
Even more dire for anti-piracy groups is the proposition that they may be going about things in the wrong direction. Much like traditional organized crime networks (like drugs and guns), media piracy has a pyramidal hierarchy. At the top are small groups of well-connected hackers who actually make the pirated content and distribute it over secret private “topsites”. From there the content filters down to mainstream sites like Mininova. The network is so well-organized that it takes only minutes for the latest bootleg movie, cracked video-game, or ripped TV show to make it from the topsites to the rest of the internet. Check out this Wired article from 2005 for more about the piracy scene. It’s unclear whether simply shutting down one mainstream bit torrent site (out of hundreds) is really the answer; anti-piracy groups like BREIN and the MPAA may do better to focus their efforts on stopping the piracy at its source. The anti-piracy groups may just be chopping off the hydra’s heads.
On the other hand, maybe the media industry doesn’t need to worry about the topsites. Who cares if a small group of supernerds are hacking away and pirating every piece of intellectual property they can get their hands on? By shutting down the Mininovas and Pirate Bays of the world they are cutting off access, however briefly, for mainstream users. Perhaps the goal of the anti-piracy groups should not be to shut down the piracy networks completely, but merely to make it exceedingly difficult and frustrating for average people to get pirated content. The groups can ignore the 10% of sophisticated pirates who are impossible to get rid of and focus on the 90% who don’t really care that much about getting CDs and video games for free and are actually willing to pay for them if they have to. Through a combination of strong international government protection and enforcement and strategic takedowns of the biggest offenders, the entertainment industries may just be able to push it out of the mainstream and avoid the worst effects of piracy.