Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Why of File Sharing

Many of my friends and relatives have asked me this question: Why do these hackers go to such lengths to share copyrighted stuff on the internet?  It puts them at risk of prosecution and nobody from those they benefit ever gets to know of them as individuals.  So why?

One can understand the existence of BitTorrent tracker sites, subtitles search engines, torrent search engines and aggregators.  These sites are all quite commercial, and indulge in all sorts of sorry tactics to make money: redirecting you to other sites, displaying popup ads, stealthily trying to get you to download some software or toolbar, and so on.

One can also understand the motivations of software cracking groups, as many of them include malware and rootkits in the cracked version, and thereby infect computers of unwitting freeloaders.

But why do hackers and hacker groups go to such lengths to secure an early copy of a film and release it free of charge on the world wide web?  Ripping an audio CD is not too much work, but creating a tight, 700MB rip from a BluRay disc or including telesync audio streams takes a lot of patience, skill and effort.  Also, OCR subtitles!

My explanation for the hackers' motivation is this:

They want to feel the joy of doing an altruistic deed. 

Industrialized society offers very limited avenues to indulge one's altruistic tendencies.  Especially for introverts, who don't like to go out of their homes; to do something altruistic from their computer is a real pleasure for their spirits.  Even if they don't get recognized, just for them to secretly know that they have done something which has brought millions of people all over the world a measure of joy or satisfaction is reward enough.

The more the recording industry and law tries to stop them, the more heroic they feel in doing their altruistic deeds.  Overcoming obstacles to help others, and defeating "big evil corporations" and "devious" DRM technology towards a "noble" end must provide them a deep satisfaction.

I call this the Digital Robinhood principle.

Some of their work might benefit roadside stalls in South Asia and elsewhere selling bootleg DVDs or rips, but I'm guessing that the vast majority of their consumers are individuals who download their stuff on their personal computers.

To stop this "piracy" (as the recording industry, rightly or wrongly, likes to call this phenomenon), one has to provide a remedy for the emotional and social disconnect of a great number of skilled, brainy, computer-savvy individuals.  This disconnect makes them want to do something meaningful: something which can help others.

I believe such a remedy is impossible, and therefore online file-sharing will only grow in extent.

Not finding a channel for their altruism which would use their excellent brains, the hackers turn to spending their days and nights ripping and sharing media and software with anonymous gratefuls around the world.


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

I remember when I was a graduate student in the US, university rules were very strict about xeroxing of copyright materials. If you were caught, your entire career including the degree was in jeopardy. Yet most of the desi junta did it. It seemed very unfair and unreasonable that poor grad students who were saving on their health insurance and food bills to somehow survive on their meager stipend, were asked to shell out princely sums on copyrighted material. So this was students way of feeling a heroic rebel.

Anonymous said...

In Eastern pholosophy - Knowledge is free. So Western concepts intellectual property,copyright volation,intellectual priracy etc does not make any sense to an Eastern mind.

Ravi S Ghosh said...

This seems to be one part of the story and there might be lot of other faces to it. I have often seen that those who share copyright material do put some kind of identity mark in it, like the files are suffixed with their credentials (of course, not real ones).

So, there is a sense of craving for appreciation or fame involved as well.