Napster apocalypse

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 11 | Nov 19 – 25, 2010

The Napster apocalypse has arrived. In 10 seconds, you can easily access just about every movie, music album, TV series, or software package you could possibly want. Within 30 minutes you can download every song ever released, meticulously labelled and organized. Pirated DVDs can be found online before they’re available in stores. New episodes of TV shows are uploaded almost immediately after they appear on television. Tens of thousands have downloaded cracked versions of Windows 7. Copy protection and security encryption are completely ineffective. All of this is possible through BitTorrent.

BitTorrent has become what traditional media feared that Napster would become. Based on various studies, it accounts for between 27 to 55 per cent of all Internet traffic, depending on geographical location. BitTorrent is a P2P (person-to-person) downloading protocol that allows users to download and upload pieces of files to other users, streamlining and decentralizing the process to make it fast and reliable. Viruses and fake files are much less common on BitTorrent trackers than they are in P2P programs like Kazaa and LimeWire. This represents immediate and serious challenges to media and software companies.

Television is no exception. Advertising is the only reason that television exists, because the shows themselves are merely enticements to get viewers to watch commercials. While in recent years the primacy of commercials has receded –- some specialty channels such as HBO rely on cable subscription fees and highly-rated shows to make money on the back-end with TV to DVD –- it still remains the chief source of network revenue. TiVo and other digital video recorders already allow consumers to fast-forward through commercials, and so even legal accessories allow viewers to devalue advertising potential on television. The crisis is exacerbated by more and more people going online for their TV shows.

BitTorrent trackers and search engines have been subjected to prosecution, which has had mixed results. IsoHunt, Torrentspy, LokiTorrent, and Demonoid have been deemed against the law, despite the fact that the trackers themselves don’t actually host illegal files. Unlike with Napster and more recent P2P transfer protocols, BitTorrent’s decentralized nature muddies the legal issues.

No one really knows where the future of pirated products will end up. The fear is that movies, music, software, and television shows will decline in quality as they become less profitable. Reality television is a symptom of this trend; cheap and easy to produce in mass quantities.

With this decline of the old school, there is an ascendance of the amateur. This has produced wonders in the form of Wikipedia, open-source software, and abominations like the infinite voids of the blogosphere and YouTube videos.

Traditional industries are dying. This is no grounds for celebration or indifference, but rather should be a matter of concern. There may be no solution and the old industries of profitable media may be doomed to die. Piracy is so widely accepted, it’s unlikely to change anytime soon. The current strategy of the Motion Picture Association of America, which is to crush users with lawsuits, is a losing battle. While many hope for a technological utopia in which content is produced by everyone for free, we may simply find ourselves surrounded by the ruins of what once was.

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