BitTorrent is TiVo for the tech-savvy and the ethically flexible—a way to watch what you want when you want it without having to pay for it. Instead of flipping through the channels or putting on a DVD, you can head for the Web to grab pirated digital copies of whatever movies and television shows you want. As you might expect, downloaders gravitate to popcorn flicks and nerd-friendly TV fare—among the top search phrases on one BitTorrent search engine are Quantum of Solace, Max Payne, Saw V, Heroes, Prison Break, and Fringe. But the No. 1 search query isn't a movie title or the name of a TV show. Rather, it's the name of BitTorrent's top uploader: aXXo.
No matter what metric you choose, aXXo is BitTorrent's biggest name. The editor of the blog TorrentFreak, a 28-year-old from the Netherlands who goes by the nom de Web Ernesto, says that his weekly chart of the 10 most pirated films on BitTorrent is essentially a compilation of aXXo's latest releases. That includes last week's top four: Tropic Thunder, Wall-E, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Kung Fu Panda. Exactly how popular are aXXo's movies? Ernesto says that the most popular aXXo titles get 500,000 to 1 million downloads per week. Eric Garland, the CEO of download-tracking firm BigChampagne, says that on a recent, randomly selected day, a remarkable 33.5 percent of the movies downloaded on BitTorrent were aXXo torrents. (The next closest competitor, FXG, is responsible for a mere 8.9 percent of movie downloads.) To judge by the fawning comments on the torrent aggregator Mininova—"i dont know what to do without you axxo," "Tks aXXo! I wish you were my father!," "axxo you are a god"—the Web is teeming with satisfied customers. That god theme is common. Last year, TorrentFreak published an aXXo prayer that begins, "Our Ripper, who art on Mininova / aXXo be thy name."
BitTorrent, as Paul Boutin explained in a 2004 Slate piece, is the smartest file-sharing mechanism yet conceived by man. Downloading something from a single source can be slow and unreliable. BitTorrent speeds things up by grabbing pieces of the file—aka torrent—from lots of different sources. The cleverest thing about the BitTorrent protocol, though, is its sharing scheme. As you're downloading, your computer simultaneously uploads the chunks of the file you've already received to others who still need them. The more popular the file, the more people share it, and the sooner your download will finish.
While simple peer-to-peer programs like Napster enabled music piracy to take off in the bandwidth-challenged 1990s and early 2000s, it was BitTorrent's rise five or so years later that allowed Web-based movie piracy to become widespread. (While BitTorrent can be used for all manner of legal file-sharing, it's made its name and reputation as a means for copyright infringement.) But even as it became possible to snare a massive video file in a matter of hours, the world of online movie filching remained treacherous. After waiting a few torturous hours for your file to download, you might be greeted by a piece of malware, a password-protected file, or a copy of Iron Man that's been shot on a camcorder by a guy with the d.t.'s.
When it's hard to know what files you can trust, downloaders gravitate to known commodities. Enter aXXo. Starting in 2005, someone with that handle began posting movie files on a message board called Darkside_RG. In the three years since, aXXo has uploaded more than 600 torrents to the Darkside board as well as more-popular torrent sites like Mininova and the Pirate Bay, all of them easy to spot on account of the word aXXo in the filename.
In the fly-by-night BitTorrent universe, aXXo quickly became a trusted brand name. For one thing, aXXo movies are always crisp DVD rips—files harvested from a digital copy of the movie rather than a shaky camcorder—and are often posted online weeks before the movies are released on video. They're never bundled with malware or protected with passwords; all you have to do is press play as soon as the download is complete. Finally, the files are a predictable size: right around 700 megabytes, the amount of data that fits on a single CD-R. That makes it easy to burn an aXXo movie to CD for archiving purposes or for watching on a compatible DVD player.
BigChampagne's Garland says that BitTorrent users flock to aXXo for the same reason people go to, say, Pixar movies—a reputation, earned over time, for quality and reliability. There are other popular uploaders ("release groups" in BitTorrent parlance): FXG and eztv are both well-known purveyors of pirated TV shows and movies. * Garland notes the parallels here to the illegal drug trade. Just as labeling the product in a dime bag "Pineapple Express" might confer a certain renown, so can slapping a label on a computer file. "If you just go looking for a particular film or a particular TV show, you never know what you're going to get," Garland explains. "The logo or the mark or the brand ... is important because there's a reasonable expectation that you're going to be getting a high-quality product."
Indeed, TorrentFreak's Ernesto says that even when aXXo uploads a relatively unknown movie—Loaded and Boy A are two recent examples—it's still liable to make his most-downloaded list. One reason for this is that BitTorrent transactions cost nothing—since you don't have to pay for the privilege, you're liable to download and watch (or download and not watch) movies that you wouldn't buy a ticket to see. Another is the way BitTorrent software works: the more popular the file, the faster the download. As a consequence, it takes less time to acquire an aXXo movie than pretty much any other torrent—quite a competitive advantage over other uploaders. Perhaps most important, though, is the fact that the BitTorrent marketplace is perilous enough that dependability often trumps selection. Even if you prefer pizza to Brussels sprouts, you might shovel down the veggies if you're worried that somebody spit on your pepperoni.
Of course, a clean reputation never lasts on the Web. The aXXo brand name is frequently used to lure in guileless downloaders. Torrents with aXXo in the filename are often used to disguise malware, and there have also been widespread allegations on the Web that the MPAA and its proxies have uploaded phony aXXo files as bait for wannabe copyright violators. (The MPAA denies this.) For those in the know, however, it's easy enough to tell the real stuff from the fakes—sites like Mininova maintain dedicated pages that host only authentic aXXo torrents.
Despite aXXo's dominant market share and generally sterling reputation, the pirate's work is not universally acclaimed. One BitTorrent faction derides his 700-megabyte DVD rips as low-quality work, inferior to larger, HD-quality files created by other release groups. ("The lunatic fringe loves quality, the mass market has always valued convenience," says Garland. "That's a reason why Blu-ray will struggle. A DVD looks really good to the average person.") Other insider-y types complain that aXXo merely "steals" and re-encodes—that is, converts to a different format and a smaller file size—movies that have originally been uploaded by members of a group of superpirates called "the scene." (You know you're in a universe with a strange moral code when people start complaining that the stolen goods they're in turn stealing weren't stolen properly.) And then there are those who simply don't like the top dog. "I think it's kind of like a monopoly thing. Some people are upset with him because he basically controls the movie pirating on the Internet," explains one astute poster on Darkside_RG. "It's like Microsoft. Everybody hates them, but they will curse the company on forums and blogs while using the damn Windows OS."
Microsoft stayed on top for two decades—can the Microsoft of movie piracy do the same? It's surprising that aXXo has even lasted three years. Ernesto of Torrentfreak says he assumed that aXXo would peter out after a few months—the typical shelf life of a BitTorrent uploader. But while aXXo has gone into hibernation for months at a time, leaving his loyal fans to pine desperately for their provider's return—during one such hiatus, a Darkside member noted the similarity between the message board's supposed aXXo spotters and the loonies who claim to have seen the Virgin Mary's face in a grilled cheese sandwich—BitTorrent's alpha dog has always returned. Ernesto, who landed a short interview with someone purporting to be aXXo in 2007, says that he used to believe the uploader was a single person, someone with insider access in the movie business. Now he's not so sure—considering that "aXXo" has uploaded as many as three movies in a single day in recent weeks, he thinks the label could encompass a larger group of pirates. (Messages that I sent to aXXo through Darkside_RG were not returned.)
One reason for aXXo's staying power might be that the MPAA has only rarely focused on individual uploaders. John Malcolm, the MPAA's director of worldwide anti-piracy operations, says the movie studios' strategy for snuffing out illegal downloads has generally been "to go as high up the piracy food chain as we can." For the MPAA, that's typically meant pursuing lawsuits against BitTorrent portals. By some measures, this has been a success: TorrentSpy, once a hugely popular torrent clearinghouse, was forced to shut down as a result of an MPAA suit. On the other hand, such site closures haven't done anything to tamp down piracy—BitTorrent traffic has soared in 2008. Shutting down a site like TorrentSpy has little effect on download rates because uploaders like aXXo don't sequester their files on a particular site—they're available all over the Web. Unless the MPAA changes its enforcement strategy, then, aXXo should continue his reign as long as he cares to remain on top. A word of advice for aXXo's fans: Don't forget to say your prayers.
Correction, Nov. 12, 2008: This piece originally and incorrectly stated that R5 is the name of a group that uploads pirated movies. It is a format for DVD releases. (Return to the corrected sentence.)