Josh Levin discusses online movie piracy and BitTorrent's No. 1 uploader, aXXo.

Josh Levin discusses online movie piracy and BitTorrent's No. 1 uploader, aXXo.

Josh Levin discusses online movie piracy and BitTorrent's No. 1 uploader, aXXo.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 14 2008 1:59 PM

Piracy on the Digital Seas

Josh Levin takes your questions about online movie downloading and the BitTorrent kingpin aXXo.

Slate associate editor Josh Levin was online on Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about online movie piracy and the No. 1 uploader of movies on BitTorrent, a user who goes by the computer name aXXo.

Josh Levin: Hey everyone, I'm ready to answer your questions about aXXo, BitTorrent, and movie piracy. Fire away.

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Calgary, Canada: Josh, I am a documentary producer currently working on a project called "Searching for Axxo," exploring the state of entertainment and the position of Axxo as a modern day Robin Hood, so I am acutely aware of all the issues. My question is how does Axxo feel knowing he never can take credit for his work? And my comment is that the studios created this monster by paying actors more than $20 million per picture. They let the genie out of the bottle.

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Josh Levin: Hello Calgary! I can't wait for your documentary, and I hope you're able to contact aXXo ... I wasn't able to get him to respond to my queries. Since I didn't talk to him, I'm not sure how aXXo's motivations and feeling are about what he does. It's not quite right to say that he doesn't get credit for his work, though. On all of the torrent sites and message boards, he's treated like a god. The fact that he stays in the shadows and doesn't reveal himself probably contributes to the notion that he's otherworldly. (It also allows him to stay out of jail.)

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Austin, Texas: Do you use Bittorrent, or do you think it's morally wrong?

Josh Levin: It's important to distinguish between BitTorrent as a content delivery system and BitTorrent as a tool used for piracy. You can download any manner of file using BitTorrent—it's a fast, efficient way to get large files of all kinds, not just movies and music. But to answer your question: I used BitTorrent to download some aXXo movies as research for this article, but I haven't used it to get movies otherwise. I think it is wrong to download copyrighted movies without paying for them. Besides, pretty much everything that I'd ever want to see is available on Netflix, which I subscribe to.

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Fort Worth, Texas: Hi Josh—big fan of your writing. In your research on illegal downloads, did you find that downloaders favored a certain kind of movie? Were they more likely to watch something like The Hidden Fortress or Spaced Invaders? Thanks in advance.

Josh Levin: Dallas/Fort Worth metroplex holla! Downloaders tend to favor popcorn movies and mainstream hits—the sort of stuff that everybody prefers. The blog TorrentFreak (which I highly recommend if you're at all interested in the torrent scene) compiles a weekly and yearly list of the most pirated movies

Haven't seen Spaced Invaders on any list so far.

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Anonymous: Please do not equate copyright infringement and theft. Copyright infringement is not the same as stealing—neither in the legal, economical nor moral sense. So just stop saying it is, okay?

Josh Levin: Your opinion is noted. Anyone else have thoughts on the subject?

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Washington: Any prospect of the studios learning from and adopting the BitTorrent delivery scheme? The distribution costs would be paid by the downloaders, the studio would profit from ads run on their own site, and incidental profits made would include merchandising, DVD purchases prompted by downloaders who like a film enough to want a "real" copy (it happens occasionally, as it does when a film is shown on TV), and the bad press and legal costs of the current approach put to rest.

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Josh Levin: This is a great question. BitTorrent (the company that created the software) actually made a deal with Warner Bros. in 2006 to distribute some TV shows and movies. Michael Moore also distributed his latest documentary using BitTorrent, though there were some problems associated with that arrangement

In general, though, the studios and the MPAA still see the software as the enemy, and I'm not sure that's an opinion that they're going to be willing or able to overcome. But until the studios develop a delivery system that's better or at least nearly as good, a substantial percentage of the population is going to use BitTorrent to grab movies.

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newdayco_op: aXXo is a god! Slate is also godlike for reporting on aXXo, although it is a bit disconcerting to read about aXXo anywhere outside the torrent scene, as this could lead to some nefarious profiteers shutting down a great thing. aXXo releases generally pop up a few weeks before the DVD release date.

This leads one to believe that aXXo has employee access at any of a number of retailers, including Blockbuster, Netflix, Best Buy, etc. Theses retailers usually get DVDs at least a week before the street release date to prep them for the particular type of packaging that said retailer uses. For bigger releases—those most commonly released under the aXXo name—the retailer will receive them in store two to four weeks before the street date. I've got money on aXXo being somehow affiliated with a Customer Service Representative at a Blockbuster Video store somewhere near you! P.S. Tropic Thunder is up, and video and audio are both 10s as always!

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Josh Levin: Glad I can grab some of aXXo's reflected glory. I've heard from several readers who are similarly worried that aXXo is going to get shut down. One blogger even wrote that publishing a piece about him is "kind of like the Sports Illustrated cover jinx: once it happens, it's only a matter of time before something goes terribly wrong."

It certainly seems as if aXXo has access to movies before they come out on DVD. I doubt that he works at a Blockbuster Video near you, though. Well, it depends on where "near you" happens to be. I don't think he is American.

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scissorpaws: The day is rapidly approaching when we'll have to collectively cave and realize—admit—that we're only undermining the very creative juices we depend upon for entertainment/enlightenment. If you don't pay the piper, that piper takes up plumbing or law. At the very least the product will be diminished, as is probably the case right now. The book industry stands as perfect example and source of the solution: your public library. Pay for everything borrowed from a library. With talking books and music and movies all available through the library, with no fear of corruption or malware, there's no reason all creative product couldn't be made available. To date every book available has been deemed too valuable to deny from anyone, without regard to how it affects the person who slaved to write it, and those hobbyists who edit and publish and attempt to get fools somewhere to actually buy them.

Every upload and borrowing can be recorded, and every artist, publisher and producer can be paid per use, the money coming out of general revenue, i.e. taxes. Call it an Honor Among Thieves Tax. It only rewards the artists we like most. More art gets produced, including much that isn't available currently—esoteric stuff that would be highly interesting. When even the fringe stuff gets a hearing, this could usher in a golden age for music and films. For your tax dollars you get unlimited movies, music and books gratis, and—not that it seems to matter much—a clear conscience. Might be no more expensive than figuring out anti-piracy software and litigation lawyers.

Josh Levin: Thanks for your thoughts. My friend Reihan Salam wrote a really interesting piece for Slate where he looked into the idea of a "music tax" that would be much like what you're proposing here.

You would pay a surcharge to your ISP every month, and in turn you'd be able to download all the music you wanted. Royalties would be paid to artists based on how often their songs got downloaded.

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washingtonpost.com: How closely do these networks and topsites mirror the systems used for more nefarious crimes (bot nets, malware creation and distribution, spam, child porn, etc.)?

Josh Levin: Good question. BitTorrent is essentially an open-air market. Torrent aggregator sites and search engines allow everyone who's interested to see what movies, music, software, and so forth are available to download. These other kinds of networks you're describing are a lot more secretive—generally private and password-protected. To learn more about topsites and "the scene" (the community of bootleggers that Wired called "The Shadow Internet"), check out this article

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Washington: MPAA wants to charge as much as it did with DVDs for downloads. Pirates don't want to pay anything. The solution lies somewhere in the middle, where neither side wants to give in to reach. In many ways Judge Marilyn Patel—the judge from the Napster decision—has it right with her recent proposal for a royalties board. People will pay for legal, authorized copies, but they must be priced fairly (not like a DVD, which is physical and can be freely resold or given away) and they must not be overburdened by digital rights management and limited playing/viewing compatibility options.

Josh Levin: Thanks for your thoughts.

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Prairieville, La.: Hey Josh, first-time/long-time. There's a Web site that allows users to use BitTorrent to download Tiger games, but it doesn't always work. Did any of your research suggest that aXXo is interested in uploading old Tigers games?

Josh Levin: Glad to hear from a fellow LSU football fan. One of the downsides of BitTorrent as a distribution system is that it works best for files that lots of people want—mainstream Hollywood movies that have just been released, for example. Basically, when lots of people have a full copy of the file that you want to download, that will make your download go faster. I imagine that something like an LSU football game is more of a niche product. Even if aXXo did start uploading old Tiger games, your download would be slow and tedious if only a few other people were interested in grabbing those files.

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Baltimore: For Anonymous: What?! It is well established that, in the legal sense, copyright infringement is theft. What do you think the word copyright means? It means the creator of a work, once he/she has established himself as the author for legal purposes, has the right to reproduce and sell that work (copy it, if you will). This is well-established in American law and British common law.

If you don't believe me, ask the various publishers who sold unauthorized copies of the novel "The Ginger Man" when it still could not legally be sold unexpurgated in America—they found that the author, J.P. Donleavy, was a skilled and tenacious litigant willing to drive those who stole his work to ruin. This is precisely how Donleavy wound up owning Olympia Press.

Josh Levin: A response to the question of whether copyright infringement is the same thing as theft. Thanks for the interesting historical context.

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Re: Copyright Infringement vs. Theft...: In 1985, the Supreme Court itself ruled that copyright infringement is not theft. Here is an article from Techdirt discussing that case and others. (Please read it after Mr. Levin's great chat—I do not want to distract from it.) Thank you...

Josh Levin: Thanks for that article. I give you all permission to go read it if you'd like.

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Austin, Texas: Josh, when programmer buddies told me that they could easily get through the can't-see-the-whole-thing protections Google had in place for my last book, making their "we only offer snippets" claim, ah, untrue, I demanded that my publisher take it down. After all, they hadn't bought the digital rights. When a legitimate company like Google—dedicated to "do no harm"—doesn't protect a creator's property, how can one reasonably expect others to respect such rights? After all, it wasn't for nothing that some high-tech folks earned the title "Pirates of Silicon Valley," which was taken as a title to a film that I imagine one can steal online.

Josh Levin: I have no comment on whether it's easy to crack Google Book Search. But this question does point up the fact that in the digital age we're running out of things that can't be distributed online. And once something gets online, it's really really hard to prevent people from figuring how to distribute it and trade it. That's what makes the Internet so great, of course, and that's what makes it so galling for folks like the MPAA and the RIAA as well as individual copyright holders. The music and the movie industries, among many others, have a really tough challenge: They have to develop distribution systems that can compete with places that give stuff away for free. While this is really hard, it's not completely impossible. One such project that's succeeded recently is Hulu.

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Josh Levin: Thanks to everyone who stopped by to read this and thanks to everyone who asked questions. Have a good afternoon.