Piracy has been around since the dawn of the Internet. However, recent attacks on the illegal practice have destabilized its entire existence.

Think back to the early days of the internet, with its dial-up connections, vocal mail notifications, and legally murky waters. Filling those waters were scores of pirates, eager to plunder any and all copyrighted material with the same fervor that their ancestors plundered the waters of the Caribbean.

The origins of current-day internet piracy coincided with the emergence of Napster: between 1999 to 2001, the peer-to-peer file sharing program enjoyed unprecedented popularity, as the University of North Carolina reports. In its heyday, Napster hosted more than 24 million users sharing over 80 million songs.

Once the captain of the many-headed scourge of internet piracy, Napster met its watery grave after just three short years. But there were plenty of followers ready to take the helm, as similar peer-to-peer services like Kazaa and Limewire quickly cropped up in its wake. However, Napster’s successors were far less refined, and often plagued their users with viruses — a trend that would continue in the years to come.

As these peer-to-peer programs died out, the practice of torrenting took its place at the helm, recounts Slate’s Stephen Witt, a highly experienced pirate in his own right. For his own practices, he began to rely on websites like The Pirate Bay and Megaupload. Though the FBI shut down the latter in 2012 (when a SWAT team famously arrested proprietor Kim Dotcom in his lavish New Zealand home), The Pirate Bay persists. But people who used torrents for high quality free media have watched other, once-thriving programs like Usenet sink. But of course, still others have popped up in their place — mainly cloud-based services like uTorrent, Wuala, and Tribler.

Pirates Persevere

In a 2012 New York Times article, Nick Bilton chronicled how pirates nimbly adapt to new rules and always find ways to cheat the system. In turn, they consult black market heavy hitters like Torrentfreak editor Ernesto Van Der Sar, who insisted piracy is here to stay: “They’ve tried for years [to shut it down] and they’ll keep on trying, but it won’t go away.”

Holmes Wilson is the co-director of Fight for the Future, a non-profit technology organization that aims to thwart incoming piracy laws from disturbing the free, open waters of the internet. He sees the state of affairs as a simple supply and demand problem: “There’s a clearly established relationship between the legal availability of material online and copyright infringement; it’s an inverse relationship. The most downloaded television shows on the Pirate Bay are the ones that are not legally available online.”

The dawn of services like Netflix, Spotify, Hulu, Amazon, and HBO NOW are looking to forever change the supply side of the relationship. With more legal media available, will the demand for pirated content slowly fade? Witt thinks so. In his own experience, pirating became so inconvenient that he bit the bullet by subscribing to paid services, forever burying his metaphorical treasure by destroying all of his illicit media.

The Future of Piracy


Babak Farrokhi/flickr

To keep the metaphor going to the bitter end, many of the biggest pirate ships have sunk to the bottom of the sea. But as long as there are paywalls, a few pirates out there will persevere. And both corporatized and government-led efforts to put an end to piracy will only push the industry further underground, providing an impetus for further innovation. The internet may never see the rise of another dominant pirate power, but the legacy of those that came before will live on.

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(Main image credit: Kevin Boyd/flickr)