Will The Chinese BitTorrent Crackdown Boost Criminals?

Recently it became clear that Chinese authorities were going ahead with their planned video site purge. Many BitTorrent sites fell including some of the country's largest, but of course none of this changes the demand for free or near-free media. So will the crackdown force those seeking cheap movies back onto the streets?

In March 2007, TorrentFreak interviewed a guy who since the 1990’s had been making his living from commercial piracy. Starting off with PC software and later Playstation games, ‘Tony’ made a very good income from illicit sales at the UK’s markets and pubs.

As demand grew Tony’s business expanded year after year, but by 2001 and although still busy, profits were being squeezed. By 2004 demand started to fall dramatically and in 2005 he had to close down his factory unit. Tony told TorrentFreak there was a new competitor in town.

“File-sharing, P2P – call it what you like. When you asked a customer why he wasn’t buying anything, 9 times out of 10 it was ‘BitTorrent this, LimeWire that’. Add that to the fact that huge numbers of PC users have burners and fast broadband and it’s obvious why I had to get out and earn a living another way. We had it good for a while but I don’t think those days are coming back.”

Cheap pirate media had just got even cheaper. With the advent of super-fast broadband there was little point in visiting the local counterfeiter when everything was just a few clicks away for free on increasingly user-friendly BitTorrent and other file-sharing sites. But what happens to the physical piracy market when the file-sharing sites are no more? Maybe China is about to find out.

During the last month Chinese authorities shut down hundreds of video sites, including some of the biggest BitTorrent trackers such as BTChina, for operating without an appropriate government license.

Now, according to a Chinese illegal DVD vendor, these shutdowns could be set to bring him and his competitors a sudden windfall – the exact mirror image of what happened to Tony several years ago.

“Pirated DVDs are the cheapest choice for people without free downloads online,” he said. “I expect my sales to triple before Christmas.”

While it’s still early days, officials in charge of clearing illicit vendors from the streets said that they had not yet witnessed a surge in demand for illegal DVDs. A spokesman for a Chinese IP lawfirm said that while there could be an increased demand short-term, file-sharers are resilient.

“Simply shutting down those websites might have an immediate impact, but where there’s a will, there’s a way,” he said. “The problem is, if you shut down the top two BitTorrent sites, then people are simply going to go to number three, number four or number five on the list,” he said. “You can cut off the head but sooner or later two more will grow back.”

Time will tell if an Internet crackdown on video sites will force customers back onto the streets, but perhaps more intriguing is the answer to this question – will it push them back into the arms of the legitimate vendors of movies and music? It seems unlikely.

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