The American Dream, Goes Virtual (Serial Blog 1 of 8)

The American Dream is getting something for nothing.   This is sometimes referred to as stealing.  We need look no further than our land; our country was founded on taking that which was not ours.  When it comes to virtual intangible commodities such as music, movies and software, Americans can once again live their dream of stealing with no punishment.  Coincidentally, this is referred to as piracy and many Americans dream about being pirates.

Peer to Peer (P2P) file transfers first took place in 1978 with the advent of the Bulletin Board Systems.  The following timeline shows P2P technology developments.

1978 – Bulletin Board Systems

1979 – Usenet

1985 – FTP

1988 – Internet Relay Chat

1997 – Hotline

1999 – Napster

2001 – BitTorrent

As you can see, file sharing existed before  Napster which made P2P  exist for mainstream Americans and not just for super geeks.  Arguably of equal weight to Napster in responsibility for the boom was the MP3 codec in 1991.  Codecs are essential to downloading and storage of the media.  A codec  is a  ”compression-decompression” program that helps large files travel across the internet quickly.  It is less important today to compress the files as broadband Internet will continue to increase.  This is evident by the new audio codecs, which do not degrade in quality and result in lager files

This first blog post will introduce P2P file sharing and give a general background.  In later posts, we will focus on individual sites, the legality of different methods of P2P, and some individual cases.


Bulletin Board Systems

Bulletin Board Systems (BBS) are not commonly used anymore.  As the internet evolved, BBS were left behind.  BBS are virtually dead, today they are only used as a hobby for old times’ sake.  BBS is the Ham Radio of the internet. During the prime of BBS, from the late ’70s to the mid ’90s, most BBS were run for free, but some charged a subscription fee.  Due to the fact that users of BBS were accessing via telephone lines and long distance phone calls used to cost a great deal of money users of a BBS were often from the same area.  BBS meet ups occured, were users would meet face to face.

Some BBS boards were dedicated to pirated software, “phreaking,” and other unlawful content.  The names of these boards often contained terms such as: elite, “warez” or pirate.  These boards would have multiple modems allowing users to connect simultaneously to upload and download files.  Many of these boards required new user verification, to insure that the new user was not law enforcement or to keep out those who did not know what they were doing. It is important to note that some great shareware content was available on BBS.  For example, one of the greatest best-selling computer games of all time, Doom, was shareware available via BBS.


Usenet can be described as a hybrid between email and web forums.  Usenet resembles  BBS, the most notable difference is that Usenet does not have a central server or dedicated administrator.   Usenet is distributed over a large number of servers that store and forward messages to one another. This is referred to as a “newsfeed.”  Although archaic like BSS, Usenet is still used widely today, mainly for file transfers in the alt.binaries group.  These groups contain among other things pirated software, copyrighted media, and obscene materials.  Usenet presents many legal challenges.  Unlike the other methods we will discuss, the identity of the downloaders is hidden.  The downloader connects to the server directly, and only the server knows who is connecting to it.  Other P2P technologies require or encourage sharing.  Usenet does not, because the content is on a server.

File Transfer Protocol

File Transfer Protocol (FTP) is a network protocol used to transfer files from one host to another.  FTP is often used to transfer websites onto their servers.

Internet Relay Chat

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is a protocol for real time text messaging in channels or chat rooms.  IRC was created with chat in mind, however, it also allows file sharing.  IRC was created by a BBSer.  In a chat room with pirated content available for download, the user interacts with a server in the command line.  Users may chat with each other or with the server and request files.  There are a great deal of channels dedicated to specific pirated content.


Hotline was created by a software company, Hotline Communications Limited, based out of Canada focusing on publishing and distribution.  Hotline attracted an underground community who saw it as IRC 2.0.  Hotline is not widely used today.  There are few servers remaining.


Napster allowed people to easily share MP3 files for free.  Napster is the iPod of file sharing.  It made it easy for everyone.  Mp3 players existed long before they were easy to use.  Metallica a band who ironically told all their fans to copy their tapes and give the tapes to their friends before they were  mega rich sell outs, sued Napster and won.  Napster being shut down led the way for a new type of P2P: decentralized. Napster still exists today as a paid music service no one is really interested in.


BitTorrent removes the requirement for a server.  The BitTorrent protocol allows for a swarm of hosts to simultaneously download and upload from each other.  A user wanting to make a file available first creates a torrent file.  This file contains information about files to be shared and the tracker which is a computer that tells which other users are sharing the file. Bittorrent differs from the other methods because it breaks up files in to small segments and allows users to request these small segments from multiple other users.    Ipoque is a leading European company specializing in internet traffic management and analysis.  In 2009, Ipoque estimated that 45% to 70% of all internet traffic depending on the geographical location is BitTorrent file transfers.  The most notable torrent site is

The History of Software Piracy, followed by the History of BitTorrent



Oram, Andrew. “Chapter 1: A Network of Peers.” Peer-to-peer: Harnessing the Benefits of a Disruptive Technology. Beijing: O’Reilly, 2001.

Jones, Steve. Encyclopedia of New Media: an Essential Reference to Communication and Technology. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2003.


~ by jonpufl on October 10, 2011.

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