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Torrent file-sharing services threaten content industry

Faster method of illegal downloading hard to regulate

Just when the Wild Wild West of online world seemed to have been somewhat tamed with the regulation of Webhard and peer-to-peer services, yet another type of file-sharing service has emerged as a major headache for the content industry.

Armed with anonymity and state-of-the-art technologies, the mushrooming torrent file-sharing service is dealing a huge blow to the local content industry, the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism said Thursday.

According to a team of special investigators within the ministry who investigated 10 torrent file search sites for five months this year, about 3.78 million people were signed up at the 10 sites, where more than 2.3 million illegally shared files were uploaded resulting in 715 million downloads during the period. This cost the cultural content industry an estimated 866 billion won ($767 million) in losses, the ministry said.

The authorities will seek to press charges against 12 operators of the websites and 41 people who uploaded more than 1,000 “seed files” on the websites involved. The violators may face up to five years in prison or fines of up to 150 million won.

Through the illegal downloads, the websites raised online ad revenue on the basis of their heavy traffic while heavy uploaders were often rewarded with cash from the website operators for attracting traffic to their sites, the investigators said.

“More people are using torrent programs with their mobile phones, which increased the number of illegal downloads. We will keep our eyes on copyright infringement through not only torrents, but social media services and other tools,” said Kim Ki-hong, a ministry official. 

Torrenting allows users to download a file from multiple users simultaneously and thus more rapidly, replacing the traditional peer-to-peer programs that linked users one-on-one for file sharing.

For instance, to share a movie file using a traditional P2P service such as eDonkey or Soribada, a single user shared the file with another user, which could take up to hours for the receiver to download. However, the torrent allows a user to take bits of the file from multiple file holders at the same time, which shortens the download time to less than three minutes for a film. The downloaded file could also be shared with another seeker without additional measures, which eventually makes all torrent program users a downloader and at the same time, an uploader.

Instead of directly linking an uploader and a downloader, torrent search sites provide seed files, created by an uploader, that contains core information on the location and availability of the desired file. By downloading the intermediary seed file, one can execute the download from an uploader’s computer with a tracker program.

The creative content industry has been fuming over the issue for quite some time. The Film Federation Against Piracy earlier this month investigated 62 torrent file search sites with servers in Korea and found 3.8 million cases of illegal content distribution. These are estimated to have caused more than 84 billion won in damage to the film, TV program, music, game, computer software and publishing industries.

“Since online files can be distributed internationally, the loss for exports could be tremendous. Moreover, it is a great discouragement to people in the industry, knowing that they will not be rewarded properly for their hard work,” said Kim Eui-soo, an official at the federation.

Despite the illegal nature of the torrent activities, officials see no feasible solution that could “legalize” the service by making people pay for the downloads.

The government had previously cut down illegal downloads by requiring P2P operators and data storage service Webhard to register with the Korea Communications Commission, and filing reports on their business activities on a regular basis. The operators also joined hands with the copyright holders and charged the downloaders a fee.

While torrent site operators are held liable for “assisting” in illegal downloads in the U.K. and the U.S., downloading a content file for personal use is often overlooked by the authorities in Korea. Moreover, torrent operators typically shut down their service one day and open another one the next day, making it virtually impossible to keep track of them.

“Since files are downloaded bit by bit from different uploaders, it will be difficult for the government or copyright holders to charge a specific person,” admitted Bang Hyo-geun, a Korea Copyright Commission official.

“The purpose of the investigation was not to penalize individuals but to raise awareness that anyone using torrent could be a copyright violator,” he added.

Kim of the film federation had a different idea. “We could insert a specific code within the file and halt the data sharing once the code is detected,” he said. “Or we could take the YouTube case, where people can insert advertisements at the beginning of the program, guaranteeing profits to the content developers. Both are not easy but we could try,” he added.

By Bae Ji-sook (