Torrent snobs

By James Cook on October 2nd, 2013

The world of illegal file-sharing is often thought of as an open community anyone can join. That’s why stealing music is so rampant: the barriers to downloading a leaked Kanye West album are almost non-existent.

But what you probably don’t know is that at the heart of this supposedly decentralised system of amateur pirates is a cluster of elite clubs that cater to the file-sharing A-list: professional copyright infringers who trade in ultra-high quality recordings, bootlegs and other rare material.

Most people don’t know that these private sites exist. They’re not listed on Google, and they don’t advertise. Almost all private torrent sites operate on an invitation-only basis.

The social currency used by these sites is “sharing ratio”, a measure of how much you’ve downloaded versus how much you’ve offered for download to others. Uploading is considered a graver offence by record companies and the law, so it’s the uploaders on sites like these whom law enforcement agencies are most anxious to bust.

These sites encourage users to upload vast quantities of data – called “seeding” – to get their ratio up, which eventually allows them to put out requests for specific music, movies, books, pornography and sometimes 3D printing templates. (Printed firearm schematics are a perennial favourite.)

With a share ratio of less than 1, users can find their access to top-tier torrent sites cut short

Here’s the issue that members of elite torrent sites face: in order to download all the rare files you want, you need to seed a lot of data. Simply download files without sharing and you’ll be banned. The majority of members leave their machines running overnight to get their numbers up, but some users are exploring ways to game the system.

It will strike many as comical, but some of these basement-dwelling geeks go to extraordinary lengths to bolster the vital statistic that will give them access to premium sites. Want to look like you’ve seeded lots of content without actually doing it? Download a program that adjusts your upload statistic for the torrent. Unfortunately for gate-crashers, it’s easy, if you know what you’re looking for, to spot someone using one of these programs.

One such program is “Ratio Faker”.

For users really wanting to make a dramatic difference to their activity, a “seed-box” is a must-buy. For around $20 a month, users rent a private server that exists solely to download and upload torrents. While it might seem expensive, seed-boxes are required on many private sites in order to keep an acceptable upload/download ratio.

And if you don’t keep up a good ratio? You’ll get banned. Behave rudely in a forum or let someone else use your valuable account and you might get listed on a shared database that many of the largest private torrent sites have access to. In other words, once you break the rules of one elite club, you’re banned from them all.

It’s a hyper-connected global network of clubs. In an interview with TorrentFreak, the anonymous employee of one such site explained more about this secret blacklisting process. “If any of these sites got raided or hacked, data about users who never even used the site would be in the hands of the invader.”

But if you’ve uploaded enough to one of these gold-plated torrent sites, you’ll get privileges. Want an obscure nineties grunge album in super-high quality format? Chances are that someone will upload it for you. Want a recording of a live show you’re going to next week? If it’s in a major city and you’ve shared enough files, someone will probably try to sneak in professional recording equipment for you.

Sure, they might get thrown out of the gig, but in the world of private torrent sites, it’s all about helping out your fellow elite members.

Why do people go to so much trouble to get an invite to a private torrent site if there’s so much work to be done once you’re there? Simply put, private sites are the upper class of file sharing.

On private sites, there are no worries about incorrect capitalisation of file names or missing album art, as is often the case on regular torrent sites. The site admins and moderators, who are often paid employees, work to establish a “house style” for files. Books must be of a certain file type, music must be tagged with a genre, films must have subtitles attached, and so on. Torrents uploaded that don’t meet these high standards will often be removed.

Of course, such fanaticism goes hand-in-hand with uppity snobbishness. Browse these forums and comment threads and you’ll find hilariously self-important slap-downs from regulars and site owners, who can be brutal in their waspish responses to sloppy metadata or unwitting infringements of etiquette.

How dare you make a request when your sharing ratio is only 1.2?!!

Many of the private torrent sites serve very niche audiences. The exception, which troubles bands and record companies, is sites that share amateur recordings of live shows. If The Kings Of Leon or The Rolling Stones play a show these days, it’s a safe bet that within 24 hours there will be an unofficial recording of it available to download on a private torrent site.

And these aren’t cheaply made, dodgy-sounding bootlegs. Most live recordings are created from multiple tapers, FM broadcasts and official snippets mixed together and mastered by professionals. Photographers and designers are brought on board to produce artwork, and the entire package is up hours after the lights went out.

But this astonishing level of speed, quality and accuracy isn’t available to everyone: it’s only the chosen few, who have proven their piratical credentials over years, who get access to the juiciest cuts.