Scene stealer: The aXXo files

To Hollywood executives, he's public enemy number one. To film fans around the world, he's a modern-day Robin Hood. As the internet's most prolific pirate makes his 1,000th illegal film download available to the masses, Tim Walker investigates the mysterious figure known only as aXXo

At 8.40am on Monday 15 December, a new post appeared on an internet forum called the Darkside Release Group. "Darkside_RG" is a clearing house for internet pirates, a site dedicated to the online redistribution of movies, music and videogames. Its members happily spend their days sharing and discussing their ill-begotten booty on the site's many message boards.

The post in question contained a BitTorrent file – the most widespread and efficient filesharing method on the web – containing an illicit copy of a second-rate Kiefer Sutherland horror film called Mirrors. Though the mainstream media ignored it, this was a landmark moment for millions of filesharers worldwide: the 1,000th movie uploaded by aXXo, the internet's most popular and enduring pirate. If you already know his name, chances are you've been doing something illegal.

This aXXo may be anonymous, but he (or she, or they) is a global brand. His most popular uploads are downloaded illegally by up to a million internet users per week. His files regularly make up more than one-third of all the films trafficked on BitTorrent. Most of them are mainstream multiplex fare – aXXo's recent posts include Mamma Mia!; the Ricky Gervais black comedy Ghost Town; and Bangkok Dangerous and Eagle Eye, thriller vehicles for Nicolas Cage and Shia LaBeouf.

The list of the Top 100 movie downloads at The Pirate Bay – one of the largest "torrent portal" sites, which aggregate torrent links from around the web – is littered with his work, easily recognisable by the suffix "DVDrip-aXXo" left like a graffiti tag at the end of each filename. Over at The Pirate Bay's most popular competitor, Mininova.org, aXXo's fame is evident in the "search cloud", a page of the most searched terms on the site, their relative popularity denoted by the size of the font in which their names are displayed.

"Today, the largest search terms might be aXXo and Prison Break, if Prison Break aired on US television last night," explains David Price, head of piracy intelligence at the internet consultancy Envisional. "But tomorrow Prison Break will be a lot smaller, whereas aXXo will always be that size. Over the last two years, he's been one of the top five searched terms on Mininova every day."

Whenever aXXo posts a new film (which can be as often as three times a day) his followers fill the comments boards with praise. He is the lowly film-fan's Robin Hood. Last year, one aXXo fan, codenamed the_dwarfer, composed a version of the Lord's Prayer for his idol, which began: "Our ripper, who art on Mininova, aXXo be thy name..."

The name aXXo first appeared in November 2005, when he began to post pirated movies to the message board at Darkside_RG. He quickly acquired a reputation for both quality and convenience. All of his films were copied to DVD quality (or near enough for the amateur eye); in a simple format that would play instantly on almost any computer as soon as the download was complete; and handily compressed to emerge at 700Mb, just the right size to fit on a single writeable CD.

Uploaders generally have a shelf life of a few months before they get bored – or caught – but aXXo persisted. "aXXo guarantees quality," Price explains. "In the piracy world, there's no Film 2008 to tell you which version of a film to download. Instead, the community tells you that aXXo is the guy to look for, because everybody else downloads him. As soon as a DVD rip of a film appears online, people search out aXXo's copy, because they know they're guaranteed a good piracy experience."

The question of aXXo's identity is undoubtedly of interest to the authorities, but it's also an abiding obsession for his fans. One Canadian documentary film-maker, for example, is working on a film entitled Searching for aXXo. The blog Torrentfreak.com is devoted to the torrent sharing culture. In March 2007, its creator, a 28-year-old academic from the Netherlands who writes under the pseudonym Ernesto, appeared to have landed a brief but exclusive email interview with the elusive aXXo. His interviewee claimed to be a teenager working alone, a naive but philanthropic soul who believed that, if a good film is out there, "everyone has the right to be entertained by it." The interview was quickly discredited by the ensuing web chatter, and Ernesto, asked today if he thinks his interviewee was a hoaxer or the real deal, replies curtly: "I have no idea." My own request for an email interview with aXXo, left in his Darkside_RG mailbox has gone unanswered.

The otherwise uninformative Darkside_RG profile for aXXo suggests he was born in August 1972. There's no reason why this should be true but, says Price: "I wouldn't have thought he was a teenager. Whoever claimed to be him was probably a fake. From what we know, he's fairly experienced." In a recent piece about aXXo for the online magazine Slate, reporter Josh Levin said he believed aXXo was not American – but, Price suggests, he is probably a native English speaker.

As with Operation Ore, the international police operation to prosecute users of online child pornography sites, the copyright cops are planting spies in the chatrooms and forums of the torrent community, hoping to ensnare the pirates who frequent them. The ultimate prize would be aXXo. Envisional's work, says Price, has led to arrests in the past. "We have had successes searching for individual uploaders and leakers of content. With aXXo, we know where he tends to be active online. If you visited the right bulletin boards and forums, and you knew what to look out for, you would find other people who were searching for him."

BitTorrent, aXXo's chosen distribution method, is a filesharing technology that, serendipitously, arrived online at around the same time as home broadband became standard. Created in 2001 by Bram Cohen, then 26, a programmer from Seattle, the software was intended to be a means for music fans to share bootlegged videos of live performances by artists such as the US singer-songwriter John Mayer, who encourages such recordings by concert-goers.

Though the BitTorrent software itself is legal, and can be used to share any number of legitimate digital items, its efficiency and user-friendliness inevitably made it the amateur pirate's weapon of choice. Today, BitTorrent has well over 150 million users worldwide. "I'm studying social behaviour," explains Ernesto, "and the torrent community interested me because it is by far the largest library of our modern day culture. BitTorrent has a more social aspect than other filesharing protocols: sharing is rewarded."

Unlike traditional peer-to-peer (P2P) networks such as Napster and Kazaa, which share files directly (and rather slowly) between two users' computers, BitTorrent collects pieces of the downloading file from across the filesharing network, seeking out segments of the film, album or application from every user's computer. This "file-swarming" not only makes downloading faster, it's also the epitome of filesharing – the more users there are online, sharing a particular file, the faster each of them will complete the download.

Hence aXXo's popularity: as a trusted brand name, users rush to acquire his releases as soon as they appear online. His small "torrent" file takes a matter of seconds to download from a torrent portal site like Mininova, after which the user add it to their computer's BitTorrent queue, sit back and watch the data flood in. With so many people downloading the same files at once, an entire aXXo film can be complete and on a user's desktop in a few hours at most.

But aXXo's popularity can be a curse. Once his name became common currency among downloaders, it was simple enough for less sophisticated pirates to piggyback on his success by imitating his tag in their own torrent files; one site turned up calling itself axxotorrents.com. There were also more sinister schemes afoot. In 2007, word spread through the community that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) was uploading fake, blank torrents labelled as aXXo releases, in order to collect the IP addresses of downloaders. Next, someone intent on giving him a bad name started to upload aXXo-tagged files filled with malware – software designed to infiltrate and corrupt a downloader's computer.

An angry aXXo got into a dispute with both axxotorrents.com and the torrent portals that chose to host his imitators. The pirate was infuriated by the appropriation of his work – in spite of appropriation being his own stock-in-trade – and ceased uploading altogether until axxotorrents.com agreed to close down its domain name.

Unlike other torrent portals, however, The Pirate Bay's Swedish founders – who are driven not by any code of honour among thieves, but by an ideological opposition to copyright law – refuse to give high-profile uploaders the VIP treatment. aXXo's protests fell on deaf ears and, in November 2007, after deleting all his torrents from The Pirate Bay's pages in a fit of rage, he disappeared from the web altogether. His friends at Darkside_RG reported that he'd decided to "take a break".

In aXXo's absence, other uploaders had their moment in the sun. FXG, whose DVD rips were about the same quality and size as aXXo's, became a popular alternative. One smart uploader named themselves Klaxxon, so that each time a casual downloader searched for aXXo's name, they would find a Klaxxon torrent instead. Perhaps concerned that he'd been forgotten by his fickle public, aXXo resurfaced in March.

"He tried to go away," says Price. "But he came back. The pull of it is quite attractive to him. When you have millions of people downloading your content online and they know who you are, that's quite an incentive. Even if he's not getting any money, he is getting name recognition and status." To commemorate his return, aXXo chose as his first post the symbolic – and hubristic – film title, I Am Legend.

The authorities aren't the only ones who have it in for aXXo. He's also deeply unpopular among an elite group of internet users and abusers known only as "The Scene", which has existed in one form or another since the 1970s – before aXXo (the name, if not the man) was even born. Contrary to popular belief, the majority of illicit content available for download comes not from consumer-bought CDs, DVDs and games. Instead, film industry insiders, cinema projectionists, DVD factory workers and retail assistants plunder their employers' forthcoming releases and pass them on to the high-level pirates that comprise today's Scene.

The Scene's so-called "release groups" are at the top of the piracy pyramid. Each group will likely specialise in a certain medium (film, TV, games, music) – even a specific movie genre – and will include computer experts (or "rippers") with the skills to turn a two-hour movie into a compressed file that is easy to transfer online without any loss of quality. Once the release group has their copy, they seed it online with the help of enthusiastic mediators. Within hours, it is freely available to the average BitTorrent user on The Pirate Bay or Mininova.

The Scene's motivations aren't financial. The object of the exercise is simply to get your pirate copy of a film out there before any other group, and well ahead of its official release. Respect and reputation are earned through speed and technical skill. The Scene may be elite, but it's a meritocracy. Its code – again, ironic for a group engaged in the systematic demolition of copyright law – demands that any pirated material must give credit to its original ripper or release group, no matter how far down the piracy food chain it has come.

This explains the Scene's contempt for aXXo, who, it is widely believed, simply duplicates work that has already been produced by a higher-level release group. His re-encoding of the Scene's film releases into a clean, user-friendly format requires relatively little risk, and relatively little skill. In a world where the only reward is prestige, it must be galling for the Scene to watch aXXo taking the credit for their hard work. It also explains aXXo's motivations, and his anger at seeing his name taken in vain. Like Bruce Wayne, aXXo may only be celebrated for the actions of his alter ego, but he is celebrated all the same.

Industry insiders claim that illegal downloads cost the global film business £500m last year. According to a 2006 study by Envisional, P2P networks and their ilk account for at least 60 per cent of all internet usage. In the UK alone, more than six million people shared an estimated 98 million illegal downloads in 2007. These numbers will only grow as broadband speeds increase. Virgin Media recently launched the first 50Mb broadband service, and hopes to make it available to the entire UK customer network of 12 million in 2009. At that speed, a DVD-quality movie could be downloaded to a home desktop in less than four minutes.

Earlier this month, an estimable group of disgruntled British film-makers – including Kenneth Branagh, Richard Curtis and Stephen Daldry – signed a letter to The Times demanding government action against the internet service providers (ISPs) who make illegal filesharing possible. The MPAA, meanwhile, is already lobbying the incoming Obama administration in the US to improve internet filtering technology in the hope of foiling online piracy. Thanks to new legislation, President Obama will be required to nominate the country's first "copyright tsar" to oversee such issues.

The biggest problem for anti-piracy groups is the growing social acceptability of illegal filesharing. "The easier you make it for people to download, the more people do it," says Price, "and the less moral or ethical concerns they have about it. I talk to teachers and solicitors who'll say they streamed something from the internet, without realising it's illegitimate." The entertainment industry is still seen as bloated and greedy. Downloading movies is an apparently victimless crime, and if there is a victim, it's "The Man".

"We also never see how their data is calculated," says Becky Hogge, executive director of the Open Rights Group, a civil liberties group devoted to the digital universe. "Policymakers trot out figures, but we're never sure of their provenance. There is a meme sloshing around that suggests they overestimate the numbers. They used to equate the cost of piracy to the [entertainment] industry as a multiple of how many files were being shared illicitly online, which assumes that if you didn't get the stuff for free, you'd go out and buy all of it – which simply doesn't hold."

It's even difficult to prove the pirates' detrimental effect on individual films. The most pirated movie of 2008, according to TorrentFreak's annual listing, was also the year's biggest box-office success: Batman sequel The Dark Knight. The film's cinema release grossed close to $1bn (£700m) worldwide, and three million copies of the DVD were sold on its first day in the shops. Although it was downloaded more than seven million times on BitTorrent alone, Ernesto reported in his accompanying post, comments on various sites suggest that many of the downloaders had also paid to see the film at the cinema.

One enthusiastic, London-based torrent-user who preferred to remain anonymous estimates that he downloads around four or five films each week (including The Dark Knight). However, he says, "I pay to go to the cinema at least once a week. I very rarely buy DVDs, but then who does? Most of my friends prefer to subscribe to DVD rental sites like Lovefilm. Ownership of the physical artefact seems increasingly moot.

"I do have qualms about it, but it's a two-way street. The commercial cinema is increasingly homogenic; there are hundreds of films that never get decent distribution, and now I have a platform to see them. For example, I waited months for Darren Aronofsky's The Fountain to come out in the cinemas – when it finally did, it screened on three or four screens spread across Greater London, none of them for more than a week. Roughly a month later it was online."

The Dark Knight's internet leak followed a standard pirate release pattern: immediately after the film's July premiere, a "cammed" version, filmed secretly from a seat in the theatre, dropped onto the web. Next, in early September, a DVD-screener copy (with the film interrupted at intervals by title cards announcing a copyright breach) made its way online. Finally, in November, a few weeks before the DVD was due in stores, the DVD-quality pirate copy (aXXo's speciality) appeared, was appropriated by aXXo, and soon spread across the net like wildfire.

In an article written for Torrentfreak.com in January, Matt Mason, author of The Pirate's Dilemma, wrote that "when pirates enter our market spaces, we have two choices. We can throw lawsuits at them and hope they go away. Sometimes this is the best thing to do. But what if those pirates are adding value to society in some way?... In these cases, what pirates are actually doing is highlighting a better way for us to do things; they find gaps outside the market, and better ways for society to operate. In these situations the only way to fight piracy is legitimise and legalise new innovations by competing with pirates in the marketplace."

Mason's book demonstrates that the history of piracy is also a history of innovation, one that includes the names Thomas Edison (inventor of the record player) and William Fox (founder of Hollywood). Ernesto agrees: "The ever-increasing piracy rates show there is a demand that the entertainment industry has not satisfied. Thanks to the internet, access to media on demand has become reality, and people seem to love it. It's now up to the movie and music industry to come up with a model that can compete with these filesharing networks."

iTunes has proved that the music industry can compete with a parallel black market online. In the US, Hulu.com, a website set up by the major television networks to stream their programming online, has done the same. Project Kangaroo, the UK equivalent, is currently in the works. "If it's very easy to find and has a lot of content, people will use it," says Price. "Hulu is bringing in huge amounts of advertising revenue for the TV companies, and it's bringing people back from the piracy networks."

"The entertainment industry would make more for artists if it embraced these technologies and found ways of doing business online," Hogge argues. "When you have six million people breaking the law, it's the law that needs changing, not the people."

Anti-piracy activists have celebrated some small victories, with trials pending in Sweden and the Netherlands for the creators of The Pirate Bay and Mininova respectively. But neither site actually hosts torrent files; as portals, they merely point the way to them – and there's no guarantee that the law will find a way to penalise them for it. Meanwhile, new torrent portals will spring up in their place, and as long as the authorities focus on the sites rather than individual uploaders (prosecuting individual downloaders has brought record companies almost nothing but bad PR), they will do little to stem the torrents' flow. The outlets may be closed down, but the aXXo brand can just move on elsewhere.

The internet makes power-brokers of the most unlikely people. Harry Knowles, a portly, 37-year-old film fanatic from Austin, Texas, became the web's most influential film critic after he was accidentally run over by a 1,200lb cart full of memorabilia at a science fiction convention in 1994. While bedridden, he bought a new computer and set up his own movie website, Ain't It Cool News, which today has the power to sink a film with a negative review before it even reaches cinemas.

Andrew Sorcini, aka MrBabyMan, is an animator for Disney in Los Angeles, who spends his days (and possibly his nights) recommending articles and webpages on the news aggregator website Digg. As the site's most popular recommender of content, he wields the same influence as the editor of a major newspaper.

But MrBabyMan and Harry Knowles haven't the mystique of aXXo. They're flesh and blood. You can find their faces on Google. Their fame may be remarkable, but they achieved it straightforwardly – and legally. The abilities of aXXo, on the other hand, seem almost superhuman. To his followers, he is Robin Hood, Batman, God: he is everywhere, and nowhere.

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