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Sunday, March 2, 2014

About Torrents

Chances are, you've heard this word thrown around on the internet once or twice and not so much in this nicest ways.

There has been lots of news regarding torrents over the past decade what with things like Napster, Google removing torrent searches from their instant search results, and federal agencies targeting popular sites like ThePirateBay, Demonoid, and isoHunt. Needless to say, the word "torrent" carries a negative connotation these days.

Like most stories, you aren't hearing both sides. The media rarely covers positive topics and such is the case with this. Torrents are not just an evil way of getting free stuff and lots of it is being blown out of proportion. In this post, I'd like to inform you guys about what torrents are really about and lots of it is from personal experience.

Many of you probably remember a program that was widely used a few years ago known as "LimeWire". In a way, LimeWire was a basic torrent client. A client is another way of saying program or software and you will usually hear the term "client" after torrent software in most communities on the net.

LimeWire was simple in that it had everything users needed within it. It relied on the same system, though it was different because it wasn't as complex as most other torrents are. Users would use the search function, built directly into the client, and read through results to find the program/music/movie/etc. that they wanted. The system relied on seeds and peers like other torrents do so users understood that if they didn't have enough peers or there were more seeds than peers, they probably wouldn't get their file anytime soon. LimeWire lived quite a long life and was recently shut down by a U.S. court for its involvement in illegal activities.

Today, most don't have the same luxury of using something as simple as LimeWire was and it appears that most people who use torrents don't want to use something as simple as LimeWire. The only other alternative that I can think of would be something like Vuze. Even then, people still prefer other clients like uTorrent.

The media would have you believe that torrenting anything is strictly prohibited by law as would associations like the MPAA for a variety of reasons when, in fact, torrenting is not always illegal.

The internet is not the only reason why piracy is allowed for a short time. We'd all like to think that people can get away with online crimes for a short time before finally being found and this being the only reason why it exists, but that's not necessarily true. For one, the internet is global so American courts and corporations don't always get to have a say in how things are done and distributed. Secondly, not all torrents are illegal.

So what makes a torrent legal or illegal? The simple fact is whether the owner allows torrenting or not. For major motion picture studios, for example, they do not allow torrenting. This is pretty simple to figure out who does not approve of torrenting. Pretty much any major corporation that sells their digital materials does not want the masses to find an alternative way to get it for free or next to free without their official permission. But who does approve or allow torrenting?

The Linux operating system has become an enormous community and continues to grow each year. Linux is not just one OS either but many different versions usually known as "distros". Many, if not all, of these distros are free and available to the public. Most are created simply for fun and not so much for revenue so the creators don't mind giving them out for free. In most circumstances, many actually encourage the use of torrents as a cheap way of getting their product out.

Before I continue on why it's cheaper, let me explain how the torrenting system works.

Like I said with LimeWire, torrents use a system that utilizes "peers" and "seeds". Another term for peer, although a bit more crude and unofficial, is a "leech".

The peers and seeds system works by distributing information from one personal machine to another. Normally, when you access a website like http://www.wheneverifeellikeit.com/, you are accessing a server that runs day and night without stopping. You can retrieve your information from this server at any time you please with a steady connection that rarely slows or ceases to operate. With a seed and peer system, you are no longer accessing a server but instead, a computer much like the one you are probably reading this on.

If you are sharing a file and I'm downloading that file from you, you are the seed and I'm known as a peer or leech. The seed is where the file starts from and "grows" out to share with other users, much like a real seed. A peer is someone who is downloading this file. There can be many peers and each are trying to download 100% of the file (unless otherwise stated, like if they only wanted 1 song from a 13 track album). Once the peer has downloaded 100% of the file, they become a seed to others who are seeking the file. However, peers can also be seeds themselves before ever reaching the 100% mark.

If there's Sally, Joe, and Jim who are downloading files from Jerry, Sally may be at 75% and Joe and Jim may be at 35%. When this happens, Joe and Jim download what little Sally has as well as the complete file that Jerry has. This is why you want a network with as many seeds as possible so you can have the fastest connection.

Another reason is that some seeds may not have a fast connection, and your download speed greatly depends on this. While you may use Google Fiber that boasts a whopping 1 GB per second download rate, if your seed is on Dial-Up with a 1 KB per second download/upload rate, your file may take a long time to download depending on how big the file is.

Seeing as how you probably understand a little better how the network runs, now I can explain why it would decrease costs for businesses like the various Linux distros.

Like I said before, when you access a website like this one, you are retrieving the information from a server that is usually on 24/7. In a torrent network, you are accessing information from another personal computer.

To own a server is not enough for ensuring that people can download information all the time without it costing you anything. These server companies are charged for uploading data to the internet and it can be very expensive especially when people are downloading files over an entire gigabyte. To download a Linux distro, you have to imagine that this is an entire operating system that you are downloading which usually carries a few gigabytes of information. To help keep the costs down, the creators of these distros often look to areas like torrents for an easy and cheap way to get their versions out to the public.

Another legal use of the torrent network is through indie developers. As I said before, torrents are a great and affordable way for small businesses to get their information out to others. Not only that, but torrents are also a great way to track popularity of an item.

For instance, last year in 2013, a group of organizations tracked information sent over the network to determine some of the most popular TV shows and movies of the year. The result was that shows like Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Game of Thrones were some of the most downloaded TV shows of the year which showed an unbiased and honest interest in the media. After all, people were downloading these for free and because they wanted to watch it. It's difficult to determine how many people were watching AMC on January 5, 2013 at 2:00 a.m., but with torrents, you can see who downloaded what at what time on what day. (When I say "who", I don't mean they know your actual identity, but they know "how many" as in individuals.)

In this way, upcoming musical artists and other indie developers can track a true success of their art in real time. A small time movie company can track the success of their movie among others and so on and so forth.

Torrents are not always free either. Companies can still receive revenue from streaming information over a torrent network.

As I said before, it's not so easy anymore to just hop on a client like LimeWire, search, and find your desired material. In order to download material like the latest Jay-Z album, you need a few things:
-torrent client like uTorrent
-.torrent file
Once you have all of these things, you can download the material. .torrent files are distributed to reduce the chances of someone receiving the information that was not intended to receive the information. You create the .torrent file and give it to who you want and only those with this file have access to the torrent that you made. Piracy occurs when these people share that file with others that you didn't intend on sharing with.

If movie studios/music studios/etc. wanted to, they could charge users to purchase and download .torrent files to get the material they want. Anyone can charge anyone to receive a .torrent file.

Many of these smaller artists use torrent networks to track the success but also because it's a great way to get their art out to more people than if they sat on a street corner or begged an online website to host their material for them. For this reason, I suspect that many of the larger studios also don't want people using torrent networks as it reduces their influence in the industry and creates alternative ways to success for upcoming artists rather than forcefully having to go through their companies.

In conclusion, torrents aren't the next greatest evil nor are they always a catalyst for illegal activities. Torrents are a very sound and acceptable way of getting information out but have been taken advantage of just like anything else. Torrents are a tool and it's up to you whether its used for something positive or negative.

I've personally used torrents for years and have learned a lot about them in this short time. In my younger days, I did use them for getting copyrighted material but changed and only use them for materials approved for torrent networks. Like many others, I assumed that torrenting was just about getting free stuff you normally have to pay for, but that is until I read up more on them.

Now, with things like Steam and Netflix, it's becoming easier to get my hands on good games and movies for a decent and reasonable price. Once things like these become the norm for their individual areas, we will see less and less piracy from users as there is no real reason why you must pirate to get this or that.

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