Essay: Usenet, the Original Piracy Hotbed

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 Giganews.com 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.

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