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Piracy is big. Despite the big media companies playing Whack-A-Mole with the Pirate Bay, it’s probably around to stay.
I used to pirate files, services like Spotify and Netflix have stopped me. But I’ve always wondered: where do pirated files come from? At the center of it all are release groups, and their members. But what do these people get out of uploading the latest episode of Game of Thrones?
I talked to a few and found out.
If you want to reach a secretive, Internet-only community there’s one surefire way to do it: ask Reddit. I posted in the r/torrents and r/trackers subreddits asking people who uploaded torrents for interviews and got a great response.
Imagine that: a productive use for Reddit.
Note: All names have been changed. Some at the request at the interviewees, others out of courtesy.
Release Groups and the World of Torrenting
Outside of small, private torrenting communities (called trackers), the majority of TV shows or movies that get uploaded come from a relatively small number of sources — these are the release groups.
Release groups record, encode and then upload the latest albums, movies, TV shows and anything else you can find on torrents. Some release groups have been around in one form or another since the late 1980s. They still largely use IRC and FTP to communicate and share files. The .NFO file that accompanies most torrents generally contains information on what release group shared it originally.
In the small private trackers, anyone can upload and the rules are such that they are encouraged to do so. If someone downloads too much more than they upload they’ll be kicked out.
Uploaders all across the spectrum responded to my interview request.
Giving Back to the Community
What was most surprising about the responses were how similar they were. Almost everyone who responded mentioned one thing more than any other: giving back to the community.
Brian discovered his favourite band thanks to piracy. “I found my favorite band over a decade ago because someone (illegally) burned me a copy of one of their CDs”, he writes, “since then I have gone out and purchased most of their music.” This event obviously had a profound effect on him. He continues, “I try to replicate that for others by making my favorite things available.”
Darren expresses nearly identical sentiments. “The reason I do it is because I love music. The experience of finding a new artist and being enthralled. And by uploading music I become a link in someone else’s journey to discover new music.”
Similarly, for Ed the “main motivation … is giving back to the communities” he loves. He only uploads to private, community driven trackers. Part of the reason he started uploading was to meet the requirements for the user class he wanted. He’s since reached his goals. “Nowadays the majority of my uploads are to fill requests”, he explains, “I like to know that every one of my uploads will at least make someone in the community grateful”.
I find their sentiments difficult to fault. Sharing something that has affected you with other people is a wonderful experience.
A couple of people also explained that they get personal pleasure from sharing files. Alan is the main releaser for a release group. For him, it’s almost all about the thrill. “Whenever I release something big”, he writes, “I’ve noticed I just get like this rush, my heart starts going faster and I’m nervous. It’s almost exciting. And once it’s done, I want to do it all over again, I find myself looking forward to that time where I find something exclusive, something I deem big that I can put out there with our name.”
Brian’s pleasure is less visceral but still a motivation. “I also just like sharing stuff!” he tells me, “I like giving people things.”
For some there is also an underlying political motivation — although it never seems to be the main reason.
Brian feels that “there is no longer a need for the ‘record company’ or even the ‘publishing house’, and movie/tv studios need to wake up and see that their old business model of the last 40+ years is no longer viable.” Explaining he says, “there are things that I upload because I believe there exists a kind of disconnect between the market for goods and the corporations selling them.”
Darren’s sentiments are much the same. “I think it’s sad how music has become such a packaged product. The RIAA and their counterparts in nations across the world have convinced most people that music or ‘real music’ has to be professionally produced for profit and sharing it with others for free is a crime, I don’t see it that way. I think music should be shared and enjoyed freely by everyone.”
Ed also agrees, “while I do believe digital content should be free, or at least ‘try before you buy’ in some capacity”, he’s careful to emphasise that it’s “not really the main motivator.”
Only two interviewees expressed any fear of being caught. Alan, who gets his thrill from the risk, was the most open about it. “It’s weird. It’s really weird. Sometimes I start thinking about ways cops, if they wanted, would be able to bust through my door while I’m half naked. I guess sometimes I just feel like I’m not that safe, even though in my mind, rationally, there’s really no reason for that.”
Darren is also careful, but nowhere near as worried. Explaining his motivations he writes, “I don’t make any money from it, I don’t get any notoriety from it, quite the contrary I try to keep a low profile due to the laws in my country not being favorable towards piracy.”
One of the first people who responded, Frank*, wrote, “I’m sure the answers you will find here are: Fun, community, fame [in the case of some large uploaders], and reward [such as a higher user class].” He was pretty spot on.
Image Credits: Pirate accessories Via Shutterstock