Thursday, 17 November 2011

Hang on... was that Lars Ulrich?

When I got my first internet connection at home, I was overjoyed. Can you imagine how it felt to be able to finally download that song? At a capped download rate and 56k, things took a while. I gazed with wonder at the DSL and cable connections my American friends were using on Napster, WinMX and later DC+. During that period, hundreds of individuals were singled out and faced litigation and fines. Metallica’s Lars Ulrich stood up for mega-corporate interests and aided in prosecuting illegal downloads.

These days it is possible to argue that the entire landscape of the internet has been shaped by file-sharing and illegal downloading. File-sharing, once arcane and somewhat tantalising in a naughty way is now mainstream. When reading a topic on an internet forum relating to “best” download sites, my only reply was “google”. Certainly, P2P (peer to peer) file sharing software still exists. The bit torrent method of downloading simply built on the scaffolding of earlier sharing software. However, currently, the potential pirate needs little more than browser software and a little knowledge of commonly shared file types and search parameters. File storage sites such as Mediafire, Megaupload, Fileserve, Filesonic and Rapidshare emulate the good old days of Usenet, only now with short, month long contracts and incredible download speeds.

Just today I read an article in the Australian newspaper, The Sydney Morning Herald. The article proudly trumpeted the death of the torrent search site What made Diwana special was its focus on Australian and New Zealand television content. From Neighbours to A Current Affair to Funniest Home Videos, from the banal to the innovative, it was all available at Diwana. If a criticism can be made of the site, it is that Diwana used and enforced a rather outdated seed/peer sharing ratio system. In some contexts, such a system works well, especially where there is a large user base and constant data traffic. However, the potential audience for Australian and New Zealand TV outside of these areas is obviously small. After all, even in Australia, many programs are available to download or stream free of charge: provided the viewer accesses these services from an Australian IP address. What this means is that potential downloaders are mostly Australians, outside of Australia and those in Australia without access to HDD/Blu-Ray recording devices. In other words a very small number. So once an uploader (seed) has lost interest in a particular file, said file becomes impossible to download.

In a move reminiscent of a late nineties, short haired Metallica, producers of ABC1’s well received drama The Slap (due for DVD release in December 2011), recently targeted and instigated a shutdown of Diwana for having Slap torrent files available for download. Naturally, one cannot help but to feel sympathy for the plight of the producers. After all, they are responsible for fronting the money required to produce a drama for TV. If their product fails to break even, let alone make a profit they will at best receive far less money for future productions and be unable to produce either follow up or new series. So congratulations and shame upon the producers for stymieing illegal downloads...

That is right. I said shame. More than anything, what there actions demonstrate is that the producers (or those in legal acting on their behalf) have a very narrow, limited concept of what the internet is and the extent of file-sharing. As the article notes, while Diwana has been shut down, the series remains widely available on any number of torrent sites. A single completed download, the creation of a torrent file and uploading that file to multiple torrent search sites can take anywhere from ten minutes to a few hours. Hey, ABC1? The cat is out of the bag. Not only is the series available on multiple torrent sites, it is also available via file storage sites. Furthermore, when the DVD is released in a few weeks (if not before as a result of employee sleight of hand thievery), it will be ripped, encoded and uploaded within minutes.

The Slap’s producers have effectively shut down one of the most important, specifically Australian oriented content sites. Although imperfect, Diwana offered humour and critique through a number of TV shows to a small number of Australians across the world. They may have prevented a single torrent file from eating into their profits but they have also gained a greater number of pirates who now not only want to see the show because of the publicity as well as those pirates who will copy and distribute out of spite. Did they adjust for these losses as well? Who can know? Lars Ulrich has entered the building.

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