Continuing our series of articles on the most pivotal BitTorrent sites of the last decade, our focus turns to the most dramatic site shutdowns. Without doubt, 2005 proved a momentous year, marked by the introduction to the war of a new anti-piracy force to be reckoned with – the FBI.
As BitTorrent increased its popularity through 2004 and 2005, site operators started receiving increasing amounts of paperwork in their mailboxes. Although much of it was mail from their adoring fans, other items, penned by MPAA-retained lawyers, gave advance warning of coming bad times. As it turned out, they were the lucky ones.
Born in early 2004, LokiTorrent grew from comparative humble beginnings, especially when compared to the mighty Suprnova. However, as a recipient of one of the growing number of cease and desist letters sent out by the MPAA, LokiTorrent found its fame.
In mid-December 2004, as the MPAA was yet to formally identify the site’s owner, a ‘John Doe’ lawsuit was filed against the operators of LokiTorrent. Rather than caving into the threats as other BitTorrent and eDonkey services already had, the site’s operator, the then 28 year-old Ed Webber (aka ‘Lowkee’), took a rather more aggressive stance.
Webber refused to comply with the MPAA’s demands, which went down an absolute storm with many in the BitTorrent community, who believed that their very existence was under threat. If Lowkee was prepared to fight, so were they. The battle lines were drawn.
This rallying of support reached fever pitch, with the site’s membership swelling to almost 700,000 users and Webber receiving donations in record time and in record amounts. Within a short period of time around $43,000 was collected to go to war with the MPAA.
Then something something suspicious came to light. Webber was trying to sell the LokiTorrent domain name on Sedo. The community was not pleased – in fact it went absolutely nuts.
Under huge pressure, on January 27th Webber made an announcement saying that he put the domain up for sale because he was curious as to its worth, noting that for $75k he’d sell it and simply move to a new domain. Selling the entire site, he said, would never happen. The Sedo listing suggested otherwise, with Webber offering the full source code and email addresses of the members.
So what about the donations thus far? Were they safe?
“As for the legal fund.. if I were going to run off, I would have already. That money is for the lawsuit, as stated. Only those who would run off with the money thought we would,” said Webber in an announcement.
Around two weeks later the site disappeared, replaced by the MPAA’s infamous ‘You Can Click But You Can’t Hide’ campaign artwork. None of the donated money was handed back and although the existence of a lawsuit was later confirmed, there was no fight.
Webber’s attorney, Charles S. Baker, said parts of LokiTorrent’s operations were defensible in court, particular since Webber had already offered to remove links to pirated movies. But it wasn’t to be.
According to court documents, Webber was eventually ordered to pay the MPAA $1m in damages and hand over all of the user data held on the LokiTorrent servers. There is no evidence he paid a cent. Webber also claimed that all of the donations were swallowed up by legal fees, few believed him, and it would be a long time before BitTorrent users dug deep again.
Despite the misery surrounding the LokiTorrent closure, other sites continued to blossom, although the emphasis switched to the relatively more underground scene of invitation-only trackers.
With around 130,000 members, EliteTorrents was one of the most prominent torrent sites in the growing, but still fairly undeveloped, private tracker scene. With its good staff and strong community, for many Elite was the site to be seen at.
On June 25th 2005, it all came crashing down in a huge and unprecedented fireball.
Despite many thousands of torrents being uploaded during the site’s lifetime, a single release – a pre-release version of Star Wars: Episode 3 – attracted the interest of the FBI, who shut down the site and arrested the admins and uploaders.
Several of them served substantial jail sentences, a punishment previously unheard of in BitTorrent history.
In 2006, Scott McCausland pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit criminal copyright infringement and one count of criminal copyright infringement for his uploading of Star Wars: Episode III. He received jail time and home confinement.
Fellow site admin Grant Stanley, then aged 23, pleaded guilty to the same offenses as Scott and received the same sentence with the addition of a $3,000 fine. Other admins and uploaders who were found guilty included Sam Kuonen, then aged 24, 22 year old Scott D. Harvanek, An Duc Do, aged 25, and Daniel Dove.
Before the EliteTorrents shutdown, while many BitTorrent trackers were hosted in the United States most had been pressured to leave, largely due to MPAA pressure. Right up until the introduction of the Family Entertainment Act – the criminal legislation used to justify FBI involvement and shutter the site – action against torrent sites would have taken place in the civil domain. The law governing the distribution of pre-release movies changed that perception forever.
The aggressive action against both LokiTorrent and EliteTorrents ensured that no-one, especially a US citizen, would ever openly place a big movie BitTorrent tracker on US soil again. Only search engines such as isoHunt and TorrentSpy would dare to stay, but eventually, even they would have to leave.
While United States-based BitTorrent trackers had plenty of drama in 2005, during the next two years Europe would become the next theater in the ever-increasing war on copyright infringement.
More dramatic shutdowns will follow later this week in Part 2