Pirate Bay, one of the most popular sites hosting “torrent” files to copyrighted material available through the BitTorrent network (if that’s confusing, read the italicized comments below) has been getting bolder ever since it announced its plans to purchase either the decommissioned offshore sea fort “Sealand” or some other uninhabited island, which would (maybe) allow it to proclaim “micronation” sovereignty and (sort of) claim to fall outside of any legal jurisdiction for copyright lawsuits. Its latest offering is OscarTorrents, which brings together the torrents you’d need to see (nearly) every single film nominated for an Oscar in any category this year. I have yet to play with the downloads to see how likely it is to actually get the films or what quality they’re in, but the very visibility with which they’re doing this is an interesting shot across the bow in the ongoing copyright wars.

Its probably also worth noting that the major studios spend millions sending out free copies of their movies to Academy voters each year in hopes of getting a nomination, and that these “screeners” have often ended up being the source for illicit copies making it to peer-to-peer networks before the films have even been released on DVD. Not that this somehow justifies Pirate Bay’s move in any legal sense, just an interesting twist in the realities of this particular information flow, and where the lines of legality and illegality are drawn. OscarTorrents is also presenting itself as a site for viewers to then vote in each of the categories, purportedly opening up the Academy process to the masses — “the Oscars as it should be”. Democratization is often something that copyright critics have pointed to in different ways, but its only sometimes a substantial motivation, sometimes just convenient cover. Pirate Bay’s real politics are pretty clear in their statement

To all intellectual property landlords: we are aware that OscarTorrents might annoy you — but contain your righteous indignation for a while, and think: we’re only linking to torrents that already exist. Face it: your membrane has burst, and it wasn’t us who burst it. Your precious bodily fluids are escaping.

Thanks to Boing Boing for the pointer.

I’m going to try in this blog to help explain the phenomena I write about, since the ever-changing debate about technology and culture tends to leap quite quickly to the newest technological oddity, leaving some hopelessly trying to catch up. Peer-to-peer networks are a way for users to link up their computers and share content, sometimes content they do not have permission to share (such as Hollywood movies), by querying individual computers for the file they’re looking for rather than a central server. So instead of getting your song from iTunes, you’re getting it from me, or from her, or from that other guy. This is what the original Napster did, what Kazaa does, what DC++ does. This poses a legal challenge to copyright owners primarily because its harder to locate and prosecute people than it is if someone just puts a bunch of movies on their website. BitTorrent is an innovation in this technology: files get fractured into little bits and scattered among many users’ computers, and your search can locate these bits and draw them together rather than downloading the whole file from one computer. According to one report, use of BitTorrent may represent roughly 35% of all Internet traffic. “Torrent” files, which help keep track of these bits and how they can be found, can be downloaded from “torrent tracker” sites (for example, Pirate Bay), then used to actually draw the necessary file from users who are housing its various pieces, using the BitTorrent client — a separation that adds an extra step but also another layer of distance between the act of copying and the provision of tools for doing so. Oh, and its largely, or relatively clearly, illegal, but relatively hard to stop because it is so distributed. Sites hosting these torrents have drawn legal fire, including Pirate Bay, though they are clearly emboldened by their efforts to secure an extra-national new home.

Here endeth the lesson.