The History Of Internet Piracy

If you remember the '90s, and you had a computer with internet, you remember Napster. You remember downloading every song you could ever have imagined for FREE! Then it became illegal. What happened? Where are we now?

Just The Facts

  1. The concept of internet piracy started out as a free exchange of information between people via the internet
  2. Napster has since sold-out and begun charging for music. Oh how the mighty have fallen.
  3. Copyright lawsuits have done nothing to slow down the free traffic of media between computers over the internet.
  4. As P2P services such as Kazaa have come under scrutiny, new forms of downloading have emerged.

Napster, the "Original Gangsta"

The year is 1999, the world was concerned with tragedies such as the Melissa Worm and the Columbine HIgh School massacre. I myself was in 5th grade and more concerned with Eminem (whom for a short period, I believed to be a woman, because of his ridiculously high-pitched voice) and getting held in from recess because my desk was a trash pit...not unlike my car today.

Through all of this, however, emerged the controversial Napster Peer-2-Peer application. Creator Shawn Fanning was an 18-year-old college dropout at the time, which makes his creation of one of the most famous filesharing networks of all time at such a young age an impressive feat, seeing as how most 18-year-old dropouts live at home and work full time at places like Wal-Mart or McDonalds; jobs that don't require much cognitive thought output.

For those of you that don't know, can't remember or were too stoned at the time to remember, Napster used to look like this:

Napster 1999

It was simple; you searched for the artist and/or song name you were looking for, and chose from a list of files that were being shared by people just like you. At some point in 5th grade, I took a big liking to this form of music-acquisition, likely because of my dad who is nearly as big a geek as I am, and between us we downloaded well over 30,000 songs. Some of you may be saying to yourself, "Pfft... Look at this fucking guy. I have 2.5 million songs on my hard drive...Fucking amateur". First of all, if you feel the need to download that many songs, you have a problem. Second, fuck you, I was 10. I could only focus on one thing for 20-30 minutes at a time due to the emergence of 22-minute long programming on TV, but I digress.

Napster's success was short lived, however. Later that year, the Buzz Killingtons of the corporate world, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had Napster in so much shit they were drowning in it.

You see, young Stewie, music is only fun when WE make money. Hahaha... yes. Delectible...

What Happened?

The RIAA happened. As it turns out, musicians such as Lars Ulrich *cough* douchebag *cough* tend to get a bit butt-hurt when they don't receive a royalties check while everyone still has a copy of their new album playing in their car. For its insolence, Napster was slapped with a copyright infringement lawsuit on December 7, 1999. Huh. Pearl Harbor; A vicious attack on American soil by the Japanese, which resulted in America's entry into World War II. The RIAA v. Napster lawsuit; a vicious attack on Napster by the RIAA for copyright infringement, which resulted in an ongoing war between the RIAA and millions of internet pirates around the world. Strangely coincidental, don't you think?

We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.

By February 12, 2001, Napster had been ordered to stop allowing the sharing of copyrighted material. At least without paying for it. By this point, however people had begun to realize that Napster was a lost cause, and had moved on to other forms of Peer-2-Peer sharing.

Napster today. Sellout.

Other P2P Programs

In the technological world, when someone creates something, the general reaction of everyone else is to try and copy it as quickly as possible. So, it isn't a surprise to learn that in the months immediately following Napster's release, Peer-2-Peer services were cropping up everywhere. Programs such as Morpheus, Kazaa and Grokster were some of the most popular ones of the time. I used to be very familiar with Morpheus back in the day. The programs were very similar to Napster, but with a few tweaks, presumably because Shawn Fanning would have slapped these companies with a copyright lawsuit faster than you can scream "IRONY".

Sure enough, they were slapped with copyright lawsuits, though none from Napster. Frankly, I think Shawn Fanning might have been a little too busy at the time with his own frightening legal battles to worry about any upstart companies trying to steal his thunder. In any case, it was later found that the owners of the companies that created Morpheus, Grokster and kazaa were not liable for what their users were transmitting to each other over their network. So, the companies were off the hook.

The decision that the companies were not responsible for their clients' behavior sparked a sudden realization in the legal minds at RIAA headquarters. None of their efforts against Napster, et al. had succeeded in slowing down and stopping the "illegal" transfer of copyrighted material via the internet. What to do...what to do...

The Second Generation of RIAA Lawsuits

I know! Let's go after the clients! Yes, the clients. Since the companies behind Morpheus, Grokster and Kazaa were found not liable for their users' behavior, the RIAA decided to go after those people that were actively and consciously sharing copyrighted material over these P2P networks. The only issue here is that the RIAA appeared to not understand what actively and consciously meant. Targets ranged from little 12-year-old billy who just loved Hanson a little too much, to 90-year-old Grandman Esther who let her grandkids, little Mickey and LaShawnda, play with her PC when they came to visit. So, mainly people with no money and no idea where the 'Start' menu is, let alone what Peer-2-Peer stood for.

Rock 'n Roll Grandma breaks ALL the rules!

A few of the more douchey artists out there joined in the fight against free music, most notably among them are Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich (No one thought it was possible to make him look like even more of a dick, but then he managed to prove us all wrong) who sued Napster, way back in the day when Napster was still giving it all away for free. Other artists against internet piracy include, Elton John, Billy Bragg, and Lily Allen.

Needless to say this made people curse the RIAA. It was one thing to go after the faceless company helping to provide us with all this free intellectual property, but now they were coming for US! All of a sudden, shit got a bit too real.

Next-Gen Internet Piracy

It was no longer safe to share music and movies over services like Morpheus. In fact, most of those services eventually became subscription-based (or gained a reputation for being the most virus-ridden patch of cyberspace, as is the case with a little program called Limewire), which legally allowed users to download music over their servers. But this cost money, and the whole point of downloading music from the internet was to not pay. At some point around 2006 - 2007, there was a paradigm shift in the way media was gathered from the internet. The original Peer-2-Peer companies had sold out or become so infected with internet disease (viruses) that they were no longer viable options for downloading. Thus, the emergence of the bit torrent.

Bit torrents are programs built for free P2P downloading. Creators of this new form of internet delinquency were able to skirt the law regarding internet piracy and copyright infringement. The old Peer - 2 - Peer networks searched computers that had enabled the sharing of the file all their media was downloaded to. Normally, this setting was enabled by default in order to prompt people to share what they had themselves downloaded. This made it easy for the RIAA and other companies to bring lawsuits against people and the networks themselves.

Torrent files are not stored on a network themselves, but rather on torrent websites such as The Pirate Bay. Since the previous generation of media sharing placed the files available for download on individual computers that reside in the United States, it was easy for the RIAA to hit you with a lawsuit and charge you a whole ass-load of money for that song that would have cost you $.99 to "legally" download. Individual websites hold the key to the internet pirate's world these days. Websites can be moved literally anywhere in the world to escape copyright laws. The same is not true for your 45-pound Dell Dimension desktop computer.

This is utorrent. Get familiar with it, it is your friend.

The user simply logs on to one of the torrent sites, searches for whatever they are looking for and clicks on the link to download the torrent file. Your Firefox (you ARE using Firefox, right?) browser will download this file, and should automatically try to open it in your utorrent client. Here is where you will monitor your download progress, etc. and be able to access the files once they have finished downloading with a simple right click > Open/Open Containing Folder

You may be asking, "So that's it? I'm free and clear to steal as much music as I want from the internet now?" Not so. The FBI and the RIAA are still looking for you, and have been know to go after torrenters as well as the fools who still use Kazaa.