Notes from the underground torrent scene – or on the distributed emergence of taxonomical conventions.

On: September 14, 2011
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About Daniel Luiz dos Santos
Coming all the way from the beautifully chaotic São Paulo (after a brief upbringing in France), this Brazilian graduated in Social Communication (with a minor in advertising), while working in the online communication industry for the past 5 years, focusing in strategic planning, mobile initiatives and social media. Also collaborated with the research lab Digital Culture Observatory of the School of the Future - University of São Paulo. A geek by profession, and by nature (since before it became cool to be one). Related interests: - Social Recommendation - Information Architecture - Augmented Reality - Digitization of culture - Video gaming Random interests: Cooking / Modern literature / Martial arts / Zombie apocalypse / TV series / Basketball / Atheism


There is an uncertainty aura around the act of downloading illegally distributed content: no matter how versed one is in the matter, one can’t always be completely sure of its precedence, which directly impacts its expected quality, relevancy, and legitimacy. Now, opposed to Heisenberg’s concept, this uncertainty can and is resolved as one actually downloads the content and (partially or fully) consumes it. But in a era of low attention spans, high bandwidth and a ever growing myriad of entertainment options, the filter failure phenomenon is always lurking. The blind trust approach definitely does not work in what is gradually configuring into a vast sea of intentionally mislabeled files and hyperlinks.

If this is the work of trolls, copyright owners hard at work in protecting their “property”*, or a combination thereof, is not in discussion here (possibly a next blog post).

For now, I would like to focus on the opposing forces, the agents and mechanisms that fight for the rightful categorization of this content, regardless of its legal implications. It all begins with the “scene”. According to Wikipedia, it is defined as “an underground community of people that specialize in the illegal distribution of copyrighted material…has no central leadership, or location, or other conventional distinguishing marks of an organization. The groups themselves create a ruleset for each Scene category (for example MP3 or TV) that then becomes the active rules for encoding such material”. As such, a highly specialized categorization system was developed to guarantee a proper flow of the pirated cultural goods, and correctly attribute credit to the small organizations behind its distribution. Or, in other words, to act as a validation tool to its quality and characteristics.

It must be stressed that the bittorent protocol is but one of many distribution systems utilized by these groups. But, as it still has to deal with the same legitimacy concerns, most if not all of the annotations are translated into the torrent structure.

Anatomy of a torrent filename

To use a very recent example: the Game of Thrones TV series, produced by HBO, has a very fervent online fan base. Without getting into the matter of legality, its “illegitimate” popularity is a force to be acknowledged**. A popular torrent version to download its first episode is titled “Game of Thrones S01E01 720p HDTV x264-CTU”. To a regular user, the only important piece of information is on the first 2 strings: the name of the show, and the season/episode number. The season/episode string is also encoded in a traditional way, but in a fairly straightforward manner that does not require much specific knowledge to decipher. The last 4 strings explain, in fairly comprehensive detail, the origin, quality and characteristics of this content.

  • 720p refers to the video resolution (high definition, in this case.)
  • HDTV refers to the original source of this content (a hi-def television signal, in this case. Other popular sources: DVD, Blu-ray, etc)
  • x264 refers to the encoding process (a “free software library for encoding video streams” in this case, according to Wikipedia)
  • CTU, finally, refers to the group responsible for its release.

But it must be stressed that even with established sophisticated rules, it is of course still possible to emulate those categorization schemes to confuse users or disseminate malware.

The relevancy of volume

Along the indications in the taxonomy of a file, the most important aspect in determining the legitimacy of this illegitimately distributed content is through social recommendation, be it active or passive. A torrent file that is popular (as in, a high seed number) is much more likely to be legitimate than its counterparts – although one must also account for the popularity of the content itself to perform a thorough analysis. The user generated comments on torrent search engines are also an important indicator. However, they can also be manipulated through automated scripts or biased individuals.

Private / Public environments

Another filter layer can also be included by the presence of private, invitation-only environments, in which there is a much greater degree of scrutiny devoted to the shared files themselves, but also to the users (even going so far as rewarding or punishing morally questionable sharing behavior, such as “leeching” – i.e., having a much higher download-to-upload ratio, or better yet, to put it in their terms, the “sharing is caring.” concept).

In conclusion, as in all “illegitimate” forms of content consumption, the torrent scene attempts to constantly adapt to counter intentionally or unintentionally induced entropy in its informational systems. An insider’s perspective to its mechanics is in no way a mandatory practice to be able to consume content in this manner, but can be helpful in the proper identification of said content.

*The quotes are simply introduced here as a nod to Yochai Benkler’s view on the intellectual property concept.

**As most of its structure is intentionally hidden, the statistics regarding piracy audience (especially the ones used in legal and moral debates regarding this question) are mostly speculative. But one can always look at the number of seeds (active users that are sharing a specific torrent’s content) to visualize its dissemination scale. But the age of the torrent regarding its initial traditional publication/airing date must also be accounted for, as its popularity certainly falls with time, as more users consume, then delete the respective torrent.


Disclaimer: the author does not encourage the use of P2P software to share copyrighted materials. This post should not be treated as a guide to piracy, but only as journalistic observation on the matter.

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