A file-sharing fine against a Minnesota woman that mushroomed from $220,000 to nearly $2 million last week is just the latest evidence that illegally trading music and videos online is still with us in a big way.
In the spring, while pirates off the coast of Somalia were getting all the high-seas attention, four Swedish pirates of a totally different sort were being sentenced to pay more than $3 million in fines and serve a year in the brig. Their crime: running The Pirate Bay, one of the Web's most-visited file-sharing communities.
The Pirate Bay is part of the trend of peer-to-peer technologies used to illegally swap music, videos and applications. Public sites such as Pirate Bay, IsoHunt and Mininova index and track BitTorrent files, which allow computers to connect and download content. People go to these sites to search for and grab music or videos.
Private "torrent" communities, such as PassThePopcorn.org, What.cd and Waffles.fm are so popular that there are many websites devoted solely to gaining entry to these cyberguilds. What.cd, for instance, has more than 96,000 registered users.
The legal ramifications of peer-to-peer file-sharing are still being worked out, but copyright infringement is a crime. Anyone who widely distributes copyrighted material runs a risk of being fined — or worse. Part of the appeal of peer-to-peer file-sharing is that it is difficult to shut down because pirated files are never kept on a single server that can easily be targeted by law enforcement.
Websites such as The Pirate Bay argue that they don't actually take part in the transfer of illegal content, they simply help users who are looking for the same files get connected.
While The Pirate Bay and other public sites get the most news coverage, the momentum now is toward the private torrent communities: Websites that are accessible by invitation only, have strict rules about sharing and etiquette and usually focus on a single type of pirated content, such as music or films.
PassThePopcorn.org, as the name implies, tracks only files for downloading films but offers everything from the lowest resolutions all the way up to the high-definition quality available on Blu-ray discs. To join, you have to be invited by a current member.
The What.cd community, operating on a similar model, shares more than 270,000 musical albums representing 140,000 bands, according to internal statistics posted on its website.
Mike Masnick, CEO of research firm Techdirt, say that while private BitTorrent trackers are proliferating, it is difficult to directly assess this growth. Shrouded in secrecy, private trackers are illegal and try not to attract attention.
In a widely publicized incident in 2007, private community Oink.cd — whose members famously included Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor — was raided by international police organization Interpol, and a few of its members were charged with copyright infringement.
Industry fights back
It's been 10 years since the original Napster was launched, ushering in the concept of picking up songs, TV shows and movies for free via online uploads and downloads.
And despite growing popularity of legal media sites such as iTunes, Hulu and Rhapsody, worldwide media piracy still looms large.
Scott Harrer, brand director at P2P intelligence and security firm Tiversa, said his company monitors more than 1.5 billion peer-to-peer searches a day, up from 500 million just one year ago.
Still, Recording Industry Association of America spokesman Jonathan Lamy says the tide is starting to turn, just a bit. He points to a recent study by market tracker NPD Group showing that in 2008, 18% of Internet users downloaded music or other media from a pirate site, compared with 22% who opted for a legitimate site.
The RIAA, which has initiated copyright-infringement legal action against 35,000 individuals, is no longer actively suing folks for unauthorized music sharing online.
Despite its big Minnesota win, it now prefers to work directly with Internet service providers to get its message out, via warning letters and more.
Lamy won't say which ISPs the RIAA is partnering with. But he says that now someone engaging in file-sharing would simply be dropped by the ISP rather than sued.
While the industry doesn't publicize the warnings, some people have posted their experiences at Broadbandreports.com and other sites. Earlier this year at an industry conference, an AT&T executive said it, too, was giving warning letters a try.
Karl Bode, editor of Broadbandreports.com, doesn't think such approaches will work: "I've seen every attempt in the book to reduce peer-to-peer piracy, but it just continues to grow."
Contributing: Jefferson Graham