The arrival of the internet didn’t automatically result in the unparalleled levels of piracy we see today, but the potential has always been there.

Right from the early days, private FTP sites and the Usenet newsgroup system have been used to exchange illicit content, in particular pornography and cracked software. This dates back well into the mid-1990s. But although these methods of illicit distribution were considered a problem, they didn’t warrant today’s headlines.

Piracy’s now the norm

Online piracy is no longer a niche for nerds. Nowadays, many kids grow up expecting to see the latest series of 24, Lost or Heroes via their computers long before it ever reaches the TV screen in the UK.

The practice is hardly viewed as being illegal, almost the same as lending a VHS copy to friends never was. Two factors have contributed to the recent ‘avalanche’. One is peer-to-peer (P2P) technology, and the other increased bandwidths through broadband.

Both tackle the performance problem, although P2P has also made prosecution much more tricky. The benefits of broadband are obvious, but as fast as it may be there is one drawback – the upstream bandwidth is always many times smaller than the downstream.

So broadband is not much good for sharing your files to lots of people. This is where P2P technology comes in. If lots of people are trying to get hold of the same file, they can contribute the bits they have downloaded already to other downloaders.

The small amount of upstream bandwidth each one contributes can then combine to make faster downloads for everyone. This capability of P2P technology is what has taken file sharing from the shady fringes out into the mainstream. The first popularisation of P2P has now become virtual legend.

Even your grandparents will probably have heard of Napster, and its demise at the hands of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). After Napster’s closure, services like Kazaa, LimeWire and Morpheus took over.

The golden age of BitTorrent

But the real P2P revolution was the introduction of the BitTorrent protocol. This splits files into identical pieces from 64KB to 1MB in size, which can then be sent non-sequentially, unlike a web or FTP download.

The protocol will request these pieces in random order, or even ask for those pieces found on the least number of peers first. A Torrent file contains data about the file, checksum information about the pieces, and the location of the ‘tracker’ – the computer coordinating the file distribution.

However, it’s also possible to do without the tracker entirely using BitTorrent’s Distributed Hash Table. This makes it virtually impossible to locate the originator of a file from the Torrent, and takes the onus away from the site hosting the Torrent file as well.

Even with trackerless BitTorrents, users still need to download the Torrent file to know where other peers and seeds are located on the internet. This is generally performed by a simple database-driven website, with tools so visitors can search for the file they want, which will then give them a list of Torrent options.

These BitTorrent websites have become the new frontier of piracy in the last few years. Most famous among them was Suprnova.org, run by Andrej Preston (aka Sloncek). At the end of 2004, a major crackdown by the Moving Picture Association of America (MPAA) caused many of the popular Torrent sites to shut of their own accord, including Suprnova.org.

You can't keep a bad BitTorrent down

But instead of killing off BitTorrent-based piracy, attention merely turned to Swedish site The Pirate Bay, which has been cheekily cocking a snook at copyright holders, and Mininova, now the most popular BitTorrent site of all. But these two headliners are hardly alone.