Village Roadshow's Graeme Burke is fighting piracy, but is it a battle that's already lost?
Ever since Napster came onto the scene and began one of the most ridiculous battles in history – copyright infringement – countless companies, organisations and associations have pledged that they will be the ones to stem the flow of illegal content transfer. From the Metallica Lawsuit to the Sony BMG Rootkit scandal, rights holders since the late nineties have fought tooth and nail and spent countless millions to prevent users from illegally acquiring their content. But most of it has been for naught – while Metallica won its lawsuit, Napster had already spawned dozens of competitors, namely BitTorrent, which continued to carry the technological flag forward.
The issue with piracy prevention is that traditional tactics - such as injunctions, DRM, and civil suits - don’t work in a hyper-connected world. The internet was designed to be largely decentralised, open and accessible to all, making it incredibly easy to transfer files across several hidden networks and via encrypted tunnels. What changed quickly after Napster and Kazaa was that companies quickly stopped profiting from piracy and instead left it to individual users to create technologies that facilitated easy sharing.
BitTorrent was the exception. While its technology quickly grew to become the simplest and fastest way to quickly serve data across a wide number of clients, the actual company behind it was determined to stay legal. The protocol was separate from the company, allowing anyone to be both a client and a server, creating trackers to facilitate the connections. Thus, BitTorrent was completely decentralised, like the internet itself, meaning the only participants in the process were those sharing the content.
In many cases, BT’s extraordinary technology and its growing reach left most content producers in a rut. While they could still serve DMCA requests on companies that provided online storage or usenet services (such a Dropbox or SuperNews) – as their content was sitting on a centralised server – they couldn’t really do much to go after BT, other than the trackers. A tracker is the only centralised part of BT, as it keeps track of a particular torrent’s status on user machines and facilitates the peer-to-peer connections of clients. The kicker, however, is that a tracker doesn’t have any copyrighted information stored on it.
After several high profile trackers were shutdown, new technologies to get around this centralised system were produced, such as trackerless torrents and magnet links, both allowing torrents to no longer be “linked” to a particular tracker, rather a mixture of individual users or a large pocket of trackers. In most cases now, trackers are spread widely across the planet, hosted in locations with weak copyright protection or legal systems, such as China, Russia and much of South America. Since trackers are not themselves transferring data they tend to have small bandwidth and hosting requirements, making them easy to setup and shutdown at a whim, especially thanks to cloud hosting.
It's thanks to all these evolutions in the BT protocol that Graeme Burke’s efforts to ban the Pirate Bay and a handful of other major trackers is effectively pointless. Not only is the Pirate Bay incredibly effective at caching and duplicating their wide archive across the world, using magnet links to reduce its internal targets from law enforcement, but that the method of how these bans can be evaded is bafflingly simple and free.
When the courts ruled in favour of Foxtel and Village Roadshow against iiNet, TPG, Telstra and the like, they gave them the option to chose how they would block the websites. There are a number of ways to do this, but there are feasibly only two that would work and one that was cheap and less evasive. The former, much more aggressive option would be a straight IP address ban – where the ISPs track the IP address of the website as it changes over time and blacklists it from access. The problem is that the nature of the internet and how websites live and breath has changed – many large sites now use servers like CloudFlare to prevent attacks, putting servers in front of their true locations to buffer themselves. Blocking a single IP may end up blocking dozens if not hundreds or thousands of others since they are all hiding behind the same buffer box.
The only option left is what’s known as a DNS block – one of the most common forms of restriction. DNS is the process of linking a hostname, (such as pcauthority.com.au) to an IP Address. DNS servers are basically massive lists of IP addresses linked against hostnames – every ISP has their own. So if iiNet wants to block The Pirate Bay, they simply go and redirect that entry to another page, likely one on their own server. This is the method all the ISPs have used.
Unfortunately, it’s also incredibly easy to bypass. Since you aren’t bound to your ISP’s DNS server – it’s simply just the default option – you just go into your network settings and manually connect to a new one, like Google or OpenDNS, and you’re no longer bound by any future restrictions. No VPN necessary. So, when Graeme threatens to block more sites anyone using an alternative, likely overseas DNS server will not really notice any difference to their experience. In fact, if you’ve been using a service to bypass geoblocks for Netflix or Hulu, you wouldn’t even been aware either.
Even if ISPs find a way around the IP blacklist option, as they attempted to do during the saga around Labor’s ill-fated internet filter, it’s unlikely they would still use it without some amount of compensation. The courts have been weak in enforcing judgements for any strict technological standards, nor is the government in the mood to do much more than its done, so it’s unlikely that the door is going to slam shut on access. But then there’s the literal thousands if not millions of trackers that will be available until the end of time.
Content creators will never, ever, ever be able to stop piracy in its entirety. Just like governments cannot stop people taking drugs or drinking booze, the idea is to attempt to capture as many of those people as possible with alternative means that generate revenue and offer a better product. Netflix and Spotify, since launch, are two of the most successful digital products in Australia. They offer great selections of high quality, original, film, music and TV content that is available on almost every device imaginable. The cost is low, the interfaces are great, and they are generous with access provisions. They have trials and don’t lock in contracts.
Both companies, especially Netflix, are immensely profitable and now pump out their own content. Netflix is now available in almost every country on the planet and stands to make countless billions as it creates localised content, content partnerships and its own franchises. Companies that once sued or slogged their customers with DRM, such as Sony, Disney and Universal Studios, now sell their films to streaming sites alongside traditional digital stores and physical releases. Sure, they aren’t getting 100% of the revenue, but it’s certainly better than mass piracy.
Companies like Foxtel and Village Roadshow are the last desperate men in the boat with buckets. To its credit, Foxtel has dramatically dropped its streaming prices to make access to shows like Westworld and Game of Thrones more accessible, but has dropped the ball when it comes to quality and accessibility – Foxtel Play is one of the worst services in the country and still, STILL, is not HD. Village Roadshow, after admitting its epic mistakes on the money it lost launching The Lego Movie in Australia months after the US, is bafflingly doing it once again with The Lego Batman movie.
I imagine it likely cost millions of dollars in legal fees to get those injuctions against TPB in place. It would make sense for these companies to instead spend that money on innovative services that encourage customers to buy from them directly, rather than, inevitably, just continue to do the quickest, easiest and best quality option – download it. I assure you that will be the case once February rolls around.