Are Torrent Sites All About the Money?

Opinion

One of the claims of anti-filesharing groups is that the people behind file-sharing sites and services only run them to make money. Those who believe in sharing for sharing's sake believe that the opposite to be true. But in actual fact, and in common with so many facets of the piracy debate, the truth lies hidden behind many shades of gray, somewhere in the middle.

Imagine a scenario in which all file-sharing, streaming, linking and hosting websites are completely drained of cash, their revenues throttled by relentless anti-piracy company pressure.

Free content and online piracy more or less comes to an end – right?

If the rhetoric coming out of industry bodies like the RIAA, MPAA, IFPI, BPI and FACT is to be believed, that’s exactly what would happen. These organizations think that file-sharing sites and services are motivated only be the reward of hard cash and without it they would cease to function.

But is that the case? Is The Pirate Bay only interested in being super-resilient in order to maintain its advertising revenue? Is your favorite private tracker only making the site better and enforcing tight ratio rules in order to keep this month’s donations healthy?

Entertainment companies nearly always offer a resounding ‘YES’ to each of the above while uncompromising pro-piracy advocates throw in a blanket “NO”. The truth, as with most things in the file-sharing debate, lies somewhere in the middle.

Everyone needs at least a little money

Let’s get one thing straight from the start – ALL file-sharing related sites are interested in money, just as everyone reading this article will be. Money is a fact of life (ask charities who rely on handouts) and in the file-sharing world servers and bandwidth have to be paid for. Sites cannot operate without cash so revenue has to be generated to keep them online.

Basics out-of-the-way, the question switches to how that cash is raised.

Advertising and affiliate schemes, free and forced donations.

Public sites like The Pirate Bay raise money in a way that is roughly compatible with the original file-sharing ethos. Not only is content-free but the site is free to use too, with money generated via advertising and affiliate schemes. Unless users want to, they don’t contribute a penny towards the site’s upkeep.

Broadly speaking, the same can be said about most publicly available sites, such as the many varied public indexes that cull torrents from other sites. They tend not to have communities of their own and generate revenue from advertising and affiliate schemes. It is hard to prove or say with the utmost certainty, but it seems likely that some of these exist mainly for the money.

Private trackers, on the other hand, are a different prospect altogether. They have their own walled ecosystem where the main unit of currency is bandwidth. In most cases all users must contribute bandwidth via their uploads or face getting kicked out. Users with lots of upload bandwidth need never pay any actual money to the site. On the other hand, those with limited upstream clout may find themselves in a position of having to donate real cash to stay on board. Private torrent sites generally generate cash from this latter group, plus other users who simply value what the site has to offer and voluntarily hand over cash as a ‘thank you’.

But while these are basic explanations of how money is raised to keep sites running, we still don’t have an idea of whether the operators of these sites are only running them to make money. The truth is that only the sites and those close to them know for sure, but there are some interesting signs to be read.

Ethical pirates, evil pirates, and the swashbucklers in between.

If we take a look at The Pirate Bay, we can see a site that in pretty much all respects has not improved in more than half a decade. For a traditional business this would be suicide. Expansion plans and grand ideas for the future aren’t fueled by standing still. The site definitely makes some money and the people behind the site could certainly make money elsewhere in a less risky occupation.

On the other hand, private sites are very much a mixed bag. There are some trackers around that aren’t interested in any more money than is needed to pay the bills each month and these are quite easy to spot with their relaxed attitudes. These sites are often over-sized hobbies for their owners.

At the other end of the scale (and this is a bitter pill) are trackers, large and small, that are almost entirely focused on money. They have donation drives every other month plus tight ratio restrictions and ruthless bannings unless users stump up cash. Every Christmas there is some crisis or other which imperils the admin’s drink supply future of the site unless there is an immediate cash influx from site members. Often these sites are completely filled to capacity, unable to process even one solitary extra invite. Until cash is handed over for one of course, then space is magically found.

In between though there are many other trackers which through no fault of their own have become slaves to their site’s finances. What started off as a fun hobby with a few hundred members costing very little, can rapidly turn into a much larger concern that without funds cannot be kept going. The admins of these sites aren’t in this to make money but if they don’t then the site won’t survive in its current state. The options are i) cull the site back to its roots and pay the small bills from your own pocket, ii) say it was good while it lasted and shut down, or iii) leave the decision to another day that never comes. Many site owners are in this final position.

But for all of this post’s previous 800 or so words we still have no idea whether site operators are all in this game for the money. The likely truth is that some are and some aren’t, but in most cases their users don’t really care one way or the other. A good service is being provided – for free.

Sharing is not all about money

However, what we do know is that the people actually sharing the files in the first instance are almost completely not motivated by money at all. They do it for fun, for entertainment. They do it for the thrill and to enjoy the act of sharing something with others. How do you deal with that – ineffective strike systems or the on-the-spot fines being mulled by France at the moment? That won’t cut off their finances for long – or place them in the industry’s back pocket either.

The simple fact is there were file-sharers before torrent sites came along and there will be file-sharers after they have gone. If the authorities squeeze every last drop of revenue from all the major sites, no matter what their financial motivations were, then people will come together to find a new solution.

The biggest fear for the entertainment industries must be that even after they’ve removed all financial incentives and blocked all the sites, the sharing culture simply continues.

Then what?

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