Expert Commentary

Quantifying global transfers of copyrighted content using BitTorrent

2011 study from Carnegie-Mellon University on BitTorrent online downloads of copyrighted material.

Peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing networks such as BitTorrent allow clusters of individual users — or “swarms” — to exchange data-intensive digital files such as full-length movies or albums. But P2P networks are often used to transfer copyrighted content without permission and without revenues for the artists and producers who created it. Two pieces of U.S. legislation intended to curtail illegal downloading — the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) — became the subject of significant controversy in January 2012 because of the bills’ perceived wider implications for Internet freedom.

A 2011 paper by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, “Quantifying Global Transfers of Copyrighted Content Using BitTorrent,” assessed the type, volume and content of P2P file exchanges. The researchers collected data from the P2P interfaces OpenBitTorrent and PublicBT between August and September 2010 and again between November 2010 and February 2011.  From these observations, they were able to identify and classify the type and content of more than a third of tracked BitTorrent downloads.

Key study findings include:

  • The researchers state that BitTorrent transfers “result in hundreds of millions of copyright violations worldwide per day, and that copyright holders fail to realize significant revenues as a result.”
  • BitTorrent content was shared by nearly 10 million swarms throughout the entire study period, with an average of 2.6 million swarms participating at any given moment. The most popular types of files shared via BitTorrent are movies (27%), songs (20%), software (17%), music albums (14%) and episodes of television programs (9%).
  • Illegal downloads of music and video content are estimated to far outstrip legal sales of material. The researchers estimate that for each sale of legitimate music, there are 10.7 BitTorrent music downloads; for each movie theater ticket, movie rental, DVD or Blu-ray disc sold, there are 3.1 BitTorrent downloads of the same content.
  • The most popular artists downloaded via BitTorrent are the musicians Eminem, Rhianna and Katy Perry and the films Harry Potter and the Deadly Hallows, Inception, and The Expendables. “Clearly, the transfers to sales ratio is greater for music albums of pop artists … whose music caters to a teenager and young adult audience that is typically Internet savvy.”
  • A small number of copyrighted items account for a significant portion of all BitTorrent traffic in certain categories: “37 song titles account for half of all songs transferred, and 117 movies account for half of all movie transfers.”
  • Older audiences may not be as interested in P2P sharing because they are more able to pay for legal content, are uncomfortable with the illegality of the process or are unfamiliar with the BitTorrent file-sharing process.

The researchers conclude, “Evidence we collected from BitTorrent trackers corroborates the fact that copyright law is violated frequently using P2P and that such illegal transfers significantly impact the revenue of copy holders.” Suggestions for policy changes include more focused tracking of youth-oriented titles.

Tags: consumer affairs, crime, ethics, technology, SOPA

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