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Essay: Usenet, the Original Piracy Hotbed

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So you think piracy is primarily taking place on BitTorrent, eMule and Gnutella? Think again. There is a whole parallel universe out there with people trading huge amounts of DVDs, TV shows, warez and porn. Three terabytes of new content every single day, to be precise. Welcome to Usenet, the original piracy hotbed.

Usenet is a little bit like P2P’s estranged uncle. People started trading files over newsgroups around the time when Napster founder Shawn Fanning attended kindergarden. The face of Usenet has changed dramatically in recent years, though. It has become big business for some. It has been under legal scrutiny, but escaped major lawsuits. Will the next step be Hollywood-friendly commercialization?

Usenet has been around since the early eighties as a kind of decentralized publishing and discussion platform. It consists of thousands of newsgroups, most of which are somewhat of a mix between a mailing list and a public bulletin board. Newsgroups can be accessed with specialized newsreader applications or though web gateways.

The technical infrastructure of Usenet is a loose worldwide network of servers that exchange messages on a regular basis. Users can subscribe to one of these groups and automatically download new messages. Sounds familiar? Exactly: Newsgroups are in many ways similar to RSS feeds. And newsgroups, just like feeds, can be used for much more than just distributing text.

People started to trade dirty pictures over Usenet early on. Warez has also always been a part of the medium, and some of the first MP3s actually found their way online in newsgroups. Nowadays video makes up for most of Usenet’s traffic. Some news servers clock up to three terabytes of traffic per day.

Usenet provider recently announced it offers access to nearly one billion messages. The most popular content is still porn, but mainstream entertainment is catching up quickly: Groups like alt.binaries.dvd cause up to 11 percent of all non-text Usenet data.

Many universities have simply stopped carrying these binary newsgroups to reduce their traffic bill. Some ISPs have instead opted to meter Usenet-related bandwidth, restricting access to one or two gigabytes per month — not enough for hardcore users. Third-party Usenet providers fill the gap with more generous plans that cost between 10 and 25 dollars per month.

The Usenet industry has boomed since entertainment companies started to go after file sharers. Usenet providers tend to keep no logs about downloaders, and you only need one uploader to facilitate tens of thousands of downloads. Some Usenet providers have been targeting file sharing users with aggressive advertising campaigns on torrent websites and P2P forums that promise encryption and anonymity. The dirty little secret of the industry is that some of these self-proclaimed bad-boys also power the Usenet services of major ISPs.

Entertainment companies have been somewhat helpless in their reactions to the Usenet surge. The MPAA has previously sued websites that indexed movies in newsgroups, but has stayed shy of going after Usenet server operators themselves. The reason for this is that most Usenet companies are protected by the safe harbor provisions of the DMCA, and any legal precedence could endanger other piracy cases. Rights holders in other countries have been more aggressive, but haven’t been able to put a dent into Usenet usage either.

Former Usenet provider GUBA has tried to go a different route, revamping its platform to offer paid movie downloads next to user-generated content and a small section of filtered Usenet content. The company secured some high-profile deals last year, but suffered a major shake-up by year’s end.

Guba wasn’t available for an interview for this article, but browsing the site made clear that integrating Usenet into a legal download platform is a tough proposition in itself. Guba offers rights holders the ability to filter their content, but the few remaining newsgroups on their site still offer many shows from U.S. and U.K. networks as free downloads.

There also seems to be a large Japanese and Korean audience on Guba — something that doesn’t really translate too well to US-only movie sales. What’s left is a video hosting service that, much like Google Video, offers streams as well as downloads in various formats. It’s a decent platform — but I doubt it will get any Usenet fan to start buying legal movie downloads.

30 Responses to “Essay: Usenet, the Original Piracy Hotbed”

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  2. Treebeard

    I agree. First rule of Usenet is don’t talk about Usenet.

    No one can stop it from being monetized, but it doesn’t mean you have to support the process.

    Usenet sucks anyway…

    It’s complicated and it’s really hard to use. Trying to find and get all those little binary pieces together takes hours. Manually opening 100’s of files that are rar’d, zip’d, and then rar’d again.

    I mean who wants to go through all that trouble.

    If even one binary piece of hundreds is bad, your whole download is worthless, unless you want to hunt down and use recovery .par volumes.

    Besides, your ISP probably doesn’t carry any of the good binary groups anyway.

    btw – I’m joking, please don’t elaborate on your new found ease of piracy.


  3. brianhawkins

    lol at all the people who are upset about this. almost anyone who surfs the internet has seen an ad for usenet. i mean i’ve seen plenty more ads than I have blogs written about it, so… lol. i guess i’d have to be a part of usenet to understand. i guess they don’t want to lose their porn supply. hehe


  5. Sonnentier

    Yeah, Usenext is one of those aggressive advertisers that has ads even on GMX, fun and freeware sites, common magazines.
    “Download MP3, Videos, Games – Anonymous, Legal, Uncensored, Fast – 300TB – try now for free”
    Those companies have made the Usenet much more public than it was before.. made it accessible for the paying noob.

  6. Janko Roettgers

    Narcs don’t need party invites – they throw the parties :)

    Honestly, I’m pretty amused by all these folks trying to shhh me. Relax, the MPAA and other rights holders have known about Usenet for years.

    Also, Usenet not some secret tree house club anymore, but a multi-million dollar industry. And it’s this industry, not me, that is advertising aggressively on file sharing websites. Maybe you should get mad at them instead …

  7. I hate when people feel they need to stand on the rooftops and shout about sacred things so that they can appear “in the know.”

    Do you want the government to have its fat, greasy hands in everything we do on the Internet?

    You are the internet version of a narc. Lucky for you there aren’t any parties on the Internet, cause you sure as hell would never get invited to any.

  8. What’s weird is that I’ve known about Usenet, and IRC, for years, and just never took advantage. And it’s not like I didn’t lurk on similarly nerdy BBS systems in the 80s, punching in text commands.

    I’m not sure what the disconnect is, but I’ve just never found a client interface for either system that was less confusing than taking the time to learn command line code and syntax again (which was and is too much time for me, personally).

  9. The Dude

    NZB format is just as easy as a Torrent file. The biggest plus to Usenet is the performance. Way better than a torrent ever was and really limited by your pipe.

    Personally I find Usenet easier and almost trouble free compared to BT.

  10. Janko Roettgers

    Reg, you’re right, Usenet still is complicated, but that gap is closing. The NZB format has made it much easier to retrieve lots and lots of parts with one mouse click.

    Also, Usenet providers are extending their retention times (the amount of days that they are keeping old messages archived) every other month or so. Some now offer four full months of retention. I’d predict that six months will become a reality within the next, say, six months?

    And regarding Bittorrent: Content really only stays around if there is supply, because you need constant seeding to keep something up. Bittorrent has a much smaller tail than Emule …

  11. The article fails to mention that Usenet has a number of shortcomings compared to the continually evolving P2P methods:

    1) The client software is relatively obscure and difficult to use, and retrieving the segmented pieces can be tedious. Compare this with BitTorrent, which is basically just a click on a web site. Easy enough for grandmothers, and that’s what makes P2P more damaging for copyright holders.

    2) The currency of Usenet posts diminishes fairly quickly. While you might be able to grab a TV show from 2 weeks ago, trying to find something that aired six months ago is hit and miss. With BitTorrent, eMule, etc, content generally stays around where there is even a small demand.

    There are others reasons too why copyright holders can ignore Usenet. Despite the apparent volume, it’s just not as significant as true P2P.