"AXXo You Are a God"
The secrets of BitTorrent's top movie pirate.
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.)