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Last Updated: Friday, 26 January 2007, 15:53 GMT
TV battles peer-to-peer pirates
By Marc Cieslak
Reporter, BBC Click

Movie and music piracy has been common place for years, but now the pirates of the net have set their sights on completely new targets - hit US TV shows.

Matthew Fox in Lost
UK viewers legally watched episodes of Lost on MySpace

In the old days when you wanted to watch a TV show you needed a television - what a quaint, 20th Century notion.

With the advent of broadband, viewers are increasingly turning to the web and peer-to-peer downloading software to get their fix of the latest TV shows.

There is just one small problem with this P2P trend - a large proportion of this downloading is illegal.

US TV programmes like Lost, Prison Break and Heroes have become some of the most illegally downloaded content on the web.

Shows broadcast on the east coast of the US are routinely pirated and appear online hours before they are broadcast on the west coast of America.

The rise of P2P file sharing sites is one of the driving factors behind this growth. P2P sites connect users to one another rather than to a central server, so data can then be shared amongst those users.

BitTorrent screen
BitTorrent allows people to share large files across the internet

"P2P file sharing is a huge issue online at the moment. We are seeing millions of people engaging in the practice on a daily basis," said David Price, Head of Piracy Intelligence at Envisional.

"Over one month you might see 10 million downloads just of the clients that are being used to file share. You could easily see a million downloads of a single TV episode."

One anonymous file sharer explained how he did it: "The software I use to download TV shows at the moment is BitTorrent. There are several pieces of software that all do the same thing, Azureus is quite good, but BitTorrent is the most user friendly and basic.

"It's very, very easy to find the shows you're after. There are several websites that my friends have told me about.

"I do a Google search within that website and can find anything I want."

Once you have downloaded a piece of software like BitTorrent a quick visit to any number of P2P sites reveals the extent of the problem.

If I perform a quick search for Kiefer Sutherland's action show 24, pages and pages of files appear.

Some entries are individual episodes, but lots of them are entire seasons of the show.

While many illegal file sharers may feel they are safe due to the enormous scale of the problem, it is still possible to track their activities, and in some cases introduce legal sanctions.

Legal action

But downloading illegal content is hardly an anonymous activity, as Mr Price explained.

"When you download a piece of content your IP address, which is like the address of your computer on the internet, can be relatively easily tracked.

"When you find that information it is quite easy to track that IP address back to a particular service provider.

I don't really consider the legal consequences because there are so many people downloading these things it's going to be like finding a needle in a haystack
An anonymous file sharer

"Then the internet service provider can or will, if you take legal action, supply the names of the people who are responsible for that particular IP address."

The Federation Against Copyright Theft (Fact) tracks down pirates and brings them before the courts. "We look to sites that we hear about, that we've got intelligence on, and we examine what's happening on those sites, and we continue to investigate and eventually we will be taking enforcement action," said Fact's director general Kieron Sharp.

"We've already done so in some cases, one particularly high profile case in the past, and we will continue to do that."

Mr Price, however, is not convinced it is that easy. "There are a couple of problems with this," he said.

"The main one is that the ISPs are very unwilling to supply subscriber details. They see it as being a matter of privacy and they are not prepared to reveal those kinds of details unless they are given a court order."

We asked a file sharer if he was concerned about prosecution. "I don't really consider the legal consequences because there are so many people downloading these things it's going to be like finding a needle in a haystack. It's not really a worry," he said.

'Fight back'

But broadcasters are using the web as weapon to fight back against the tide of illegal torrents.

Desperate Housewives
Desperate Housewives is among the shows available on iTunes in the US

TV networks across the globe have started to stream shows on their own websites, often at reduced quality to their broadcast counterparts, but free to view nonetheless.

Mr Price thinks this is only going to increase.

"In the US people have already followed that sort of line. We have seen broadcasters streaming their top shows through their own website, with adverts.

"You can go to the ABC website and watch Lost, you can go to the NBC website and watch Heroes.

"In the US networks are selling episodes of Lost and episodes of other shows on iTunes for about $1.99 a go."

In addition to broadcasters, internet start ups like Babelgum have adopted P2P technology as a solution to legally distributing TV shows over the web.

Skype and Kazaa founders Niklas Zennstrom and Janus Friis claim their P2P TV offering Joost will provide full screen broadcast quality pictures.

Joost is still in beta testing and lacks any really compelling content, but with rumours of deals with big broadcasters in the offing, this kind of legal P2P sharing could help the TV networks force the web pirates to walk the plank.

Film piracy: Is it theft?
18 Aug 06 |  Click

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