Small-screen bounty

Easy to find, fast to download and free, it's no wonder television piracy is on the increase - or that broadcasters are desperate to prevent it. Michael Pollitt reports

What do
Little Britain,
Eastenders,
Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere,
Spooks,
Coronation Street and
Casualty have in common? Answer: they are some of Britain's most popular pirated television programmes available on the Net. And they are among many thousands of others available and free to download from the Web, often within hours of their transmission.

What do Little Britain, Eastenders, Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere, Spooks, Coronation Street and Casualty have in common? Answer: they are some of Britain's most popular pirated television programmes available on the Net. And they are among many thousands of others available and free to download from the Web, often within hours of their transmission.

Production companies and broadcasters are becoming aware that internet TV piracy is stealing their programming and audiences, and that pirated episodes of the country's favourite programmes threaten DVD sales and overseas deals. Debbie Manners, the head of rights and business affairs at the BBC, says TV piracy has the potential to hurt the commercial side of the industry. "It's a big issue across the industry at the moment. We're not going to ignore it, especially if it's quite widespread," she says. But is the BBC going after the people involved? "I'm not aware that we are. That would depend on the extent of it."

Envisional, a company that specialises in internet monitoring using "asset tracking" software, is all too aware of the extent of such piracy. David Price, an Envisional researcher, likens the internet to a global video recorder (or, more accurately, a personal video recorder such as TiVo, which records programmes based on viewing habits). PC-TV cards capture broadcasts that are encoded, uploaded and then shared. Downloads rely on peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing systems, of which there are many, including BitTorrent, Direct Connect and eDonkey.

Price has seen copies of American television shows appearing on the Web less than half an hour after their initial airing. Programmes are also "ripped" from videos and DVDs. "All the major networks are concerned, though some are only starting to realise the effect it could have on their revenues," he says. Typically, an hour-long episode (the advertising is also frequently removed to save time) might take two hours to download on a broadband connection. That's fast enough to make pirate recording more attractive than paying for DVDs.

"The quality of the encoding is high enough to watch comfortably on a computer monitor or, when burned to a DVD, on a television," says Price. "Indeed, it is as easy to download a television show through a website as it is to schedule your VCR." Discussion forum comments reveal that one downloader is "far too disorganised to remember to set my video recorder" while others crave classic comedy or the latest American episodes rather than films. And those living in other countries (including expatriates) have a hankering for British television.

The Independent contacted one of several BitTorrent sites for an interview. After a lot of deliberation, one site administrator, who we'll call John because he wanted to remain anonymous, agreed (but only after saying "the sad truth is that, if you do this, the site will probably be shut down").

"There's no clear pattern on the most popular downloads," he says. "Recent big hits have included the Royal Institute Christmas lecture on Antarctica, an old Harry Enfield show, a 1980s Morecambe and Wise Christmas Special, and Max & Paddy's Road To Nowhere. Soaps, dramas and comedies are all popular - EastEnders and Casualty are downloaded a lot."

John acknowledges the problems with copyright (the site discourages downloading programmes that are available on video or DVD) but emphasises that the site does not actually host files. This is characteristic of BitTorrent technology: the television programmes are held on individual PCs and swapped between "swarms" of users in bandwidth efficient fragments or "torrents". The sites provide a programme index and torrent tracker which means, from a lawyer's point of view, that they are the weakest link.

"We assume that the television companies are aware of us, though we don't believe that they would be overly concerned about what we are doing," says John. Eastenders, which is watched by millions on TV, is downloaded regularly by fewer than 1,000. This compares with 50,000 downloads of one episode of Stargate Atlantis observed by Envisional through two other BitTorrent trackers.

In December 2004, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) threatened legal action against individuals operating servers that contained indices of millions of illegal copies of films and TV programmes. Suprnova.org, the world's largest BitTorrent site, promptly shut down.

John Malcolm, the MPAA's senior vice-president and director of worldwide anti-piracy operations, says: "The operators of these servers exercise total control over which files are included on their servers and even determine if some kinds of files aren't allowed. For instance, some operators won't post pornography on their systems, but they have no compunction about allowing illegal files of copyrighted movies and TV shows to flow through their servers. We are moving to stop that."

If cases go to court in the UK, who is likely to win? David Engel, a media lawyer and partner at Addleshaw Goddard, points to the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, and says that those issuing copies of television programmes would fall foul of it. "None of this has been tested yet in this country before the courts," says Engel. "We have a whole generation of young adults who see nothing legally and morally wrong in taking content - music, films and TV programmes - for free on the internet." The legal implications don't bother Mark Sailes, an undergraduate at Leeds University who has developed software to make downloading easier. He understands the question of copyright but denies being involved in TV programme recording and distribution. Buttress is a free program used to download and run torrent files from RSS feeds (commonly used to provide news headlines) without any user intervention. "I was involved in BitTorrent 18 months ago. When I found it, it was being used to distribute American TV shows even then," he says. "Every time a new TV show pops in that I like, Buttress will download it."

Sailes goes on to suggest that TV companies are behind the times in their attitude to downloading. "They're just caught in their history and they haven't opened their eyes yet. If we can do it so successfully without any budget, think what a TV company could do."

BitTorrent's John agrees: "We know that many of our users would welcome a legitimate service to access the content we provide. Many are aware that this is a legal grey zone, and would much rather be able to pay to get these programmes through official avenues." So is that going to happen? Celador, which makes Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, says that it has been unaffected by television piracy, but Simon Gunning, head of interactive media, knows this won't last. "Our approach is to monitor it and to be aware of what we can do to avoid problems," he says. "However, we are aware of the way the world is changing." Celador is looking into "video on demand" technology, backed by digital rights management for tight control. Channel 4 already has a subscription website for broadband viewing.

But the television industry's policy of educate, deter and protect misses the point because the power balance shifts between producer and consumer. There are also lessons to be drawn from the music industry's lengthy dispute with MP3 file sharers. The Slovenian owner of Suprnova.org, Sloncek, is fighting back with a new P2P program called eXeem, which uses a decentralised list and a BitTorrent tracker (thus there's no website for the lawyers to find). The message to the British television industry seems clear: provide what viewers want or they'll continue to help themselves.

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