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Pirate Economics 101: Who’s Making Money From Torrents?

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Most of the content on major torrent sites comes from relatively few uploaders, and a significant portion of them are in it for the money, according to a recently released study entitled “Is Content Publishing In BitTorrent Altruistic or Profit-Driven?” (PDF download

But how much money are we actually talking about? According to the study, plugging your web site via BitTorrent can get you around $200 per day on average.

Scientists from Madrid; Darmstadt, Germany; and Eugene, Oregon took a closer look at thousands of torrents on The Pirate Bay and Mininova in 2009 and 2010, and their analysis revealed that a small fraction of users is responsible for 67 percent of the content on these torrent sites.

So who are these folks? Thirty percent of all torrents analyzed for the study were spam associated with anti-piracy agencies and others who tried to get people to download unwanted content through simple bait-and-switch tactics. Another 30 percent of the torrents came from publishers that had financial motives. Some were promoting private torrent sites that finance themselves through ads or donations, and others were simply promoting web sites and services — for example, by advertising porn subscriptions through adult movie torrents.

The scientists noticed some interesting patterns among these profit-driven publishers, noting, for example, that 40 percent of the people advertising private torrent sites publish content in languages other than English. But commercial torrents aren’t just limited to promoting porn and piracy: Researchers even ran into a church that used torrent piracy to promote its site.

There are still plenty of users who upload torrents just out of the goodness of their hearts, but uploaders with commercial incentives seem to be much more active, uploading a great number of, and much more popular, torrents. Fifty-two percent of uploaders of a random group sampling were altruistic, but this group was only responsible for 11.5 percent of the content uploaded.

The study points out that some publishers with commercial interests seem to make some good money with piracy: Top private torrent portals can generate as much as $3,700 per day by advertising their sites through torrents, and even a plain old porn site promoted through torrents can make $205 per day on average, the scientists estimated.

I know what you’re thinking: These estimates have to be taken with a grain of salt, if only for the fact that porn and torrent sites tend to generate much less income through advertising than other sites. Private torrent sites in particular aren’t usually money machines, but instead try to make ends meet in the face of significant hosting costs.

The conclusion drawn from these numbers is also debatable: That so much of the content comes from relatively few publishers with clear financial incentive could be piracy’s Achilles heel, the scientists argue: “The removal of these financial-driven publishers (e.g. by antipiracy actions) may significantly affect the popularity of these portals as well as the whole BitTorrent ecosystem,” they write. That could be the case. Or maybe those top uploaders would simply be replaced on no time by others out to make a quick buck.

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