When asked to come up with an example of a torrent site, most tech-savvy Internet users might cite a public and open site such as The Pirate Bay. However, thousands of file-sharers – many of whom consider themselves to be experts – might reference a private invite-only site like What.cd.
The argument over which is ‘better’ will continue forever, but the differences between private and public sites are clear. Public sites offer content for free on a level playing field. It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’re from, you can access the site’s content for free. There are no barriers to entry and there are no rules.
Generally, private sites first require potential users to obtain an invitation and these vary from fairly easy to extremely difficult to get hold of. Once in, users are expected to play by a set of often very strict rules in order to be granted continued access to content. Screw up and the user is out, and sometimes banned forever.
In short, and as strange as it might sound, to a certain extent operators of private torrent sites implement an intellectual property protection regime to restrict access to content. And according to a research paper just published by Bodó Balázs at Budapest University of Technology and Economics, these voluntary IP regimes can go even further.
Balázs begins with a recollection of his attempts to gain an invite to a private tracker via the site’s IRC channel. He was immediately booted by a bot which explained that his entire country had been banned from the site due to users from Hungary proving bad for the community in the past.
“I laughed out loud. In the last few years I got used to the black YouTube screens telling me that ‘This video is not available in your country’, but it was completely unexpected to see that the ‘pirates’ are also locking me out from their musical archives,” he writes.
Not that Balázs does not appreciate the need for control. He understands that by being closed these sites gain a stability that sites like The Pirate Bay cannot hope to achieve and he recognizes the need for rules in order to maintain a flourishing community.
“Most of the rules are there to ensure the long-term survival of the common resource pool of shared files in an increasingly hostile legal and technological environment. They also make sure that the collection is as comprehensive as possible and maintains the highest achievable standards in terms of technical quality,” Balázs explains.
“Other rules establish internal administrative hierarchies, decision-making processes and conflict resolution methods: in other words, they establish the foundations of a self-governing community.”
Throughout his paper Balázs references several private sites but redacts their names to protect their privacy. We’ll continue with his wishes but suffice to say this offers them little extra security – we recognized the sites immediately from his descriptions. One, a site specializing in non-mainstream movies, told Balázs an interesting story about how they handle copyright issues in order to keep their community healthy.
Rather than a straightforward take-down response to a complaint, the site admin described an interesting negotiation, where the complainant was paid off, not with money, but with ‘ratio’, the main ‘currency’ available on a private tracker. Ratio is the comparison between the quantities of data a user downloads versus what he uploads – the more he does of the latter the more he is allowed to do of the former. Site admins have the ability to manipulate these stats to give users more relaxed access to ‘free’ content.
“Most often the producer will ask for [his content] to be removed until a certain date or until they break even on the film. We have also ‘paid’ (in ratio) producers to keep their work on the site,” the admin explained.
Balázs notes that “backroom dealings” like these seem to be better received by site operators and provide an avenue for negotiated settlement rather than the alternative of sending in the lawyers. TorrentFreak spoke to the admin of another private tracker specializing in music who confirmed that deals were in place with at least two dozen artists and label workers who agree to keep the peace in exchange for ratio.
With issues over outside influences aside, private tracker rules are put in place to keep the community healthy. Balázs argues these revolve around keeping quality high, maintaining the completeness of the overall library, and keeping the sharing community strong. These factors take priority, even if that means significantly reducing the usefulness of the site to the individual user.
One of the biggest complaints from users on private sites is that they are restricted by ratio rules. While these are necessarily put in place to protect sites’ libraries and quality of service (transfer speeds) for the rest of the community, they also amount to a copy protection system enforced by site admins, which effectively introduces a price for consumption (download) and a price for labor (upload).
“It is important to note that [private trackers] are not free-markets, and the prices are not automatically defined by supply and demand. On the contrary, prices are set by the not so invisible hands of the site administrators to signal preferred behavior and to address certain shortcomings of the P2P activity,” Balázs notes.
“By rewarding the sharing of certain content and penalizing the sharing of others, such pricing mechanisms are able to ensure that older, less popular, niche, fringe or otherwise archival content stays accessible at all times within the community. By setting download prices to zero [freeleech] these sites play an important role in directing attention to certain works and authors. Such mechanisms help admins to ‘curate the collection’ and shape the cultural canon within the network.”
Content producers are often accused of failing to adjust to the reality that online, content is no longer scarce. The Internet allows infinite digital copies of content to be made at virtually no cost. Balázs writes that while this is the case for open torrent trackers, private trackers counter with the implementation of rules that reintroduce artificial scarcity.
Nevertheless, users of private trackers are generally happy to play by site rules and their admins seem to be more open to deal with rightsholders, even as they break many of the rules laid down in copyright law. Balázs notes, however, that these decisions are less to do with the rule of law and more to do with the code of ethics negotiated within private site communities.
“As long as the main question of the IP field is not how people can be forced to obey the law, but rather under what conditions they choose to respect the wishes of authors and ensure the reproduction of different cultural fields, the survival of different social practices will be a factor of their ethical disposition rather than their legality,” Balázs writes.
“In other words we should expect ethically robust practices to persist even if their legality remains in question, and unethical practices will face considerable public opposition even if they are found to be legal.”
Finally, on the issue of private trackers and their restrictions, Balázs closes with the following thoughts.
“Voluntary IP restrictions in piratical communities are probably the most effective enforcement mechanisms up to date. Closed file-sharing communities have developed tools of social control in spaces where statutory copyright is irrelevant. The enforcement efforts that target these networks destroy not just the resource pools and the communities that built them, but also destroy the social controls that are in place,” Balázs notes.
“Paradoxical as this may sound, the aforementioned piratical communities may be the enforcement allies that rights-holders have been seeking all this time. In any case, it is apparent that they both have at least one interest in common: a sustainable cultural ecosystem. So maybe it is time to ask ourselves: should we set the foxes to watch the geese?”
Set the fox to watch the geese: voluntary IP regimes in piratical file-sharing communities, can be downloaded here.