From the moment I arrived at college in 1997, I was a pirate. Like me, the Internet was in its adolescence. Its infancy had been a time of academic cultivation. Its mature form today is mostly a corporate affair. In between though, there was what some have called the “golden age of the Internet”—a period of experimentation, where average citizens could communicate through borders and share information without limitations.
I’d pirated before, of course. As a child in the late ’80s I’d recorded songs from the radio; in the early ’90s I’d been passed a bootlegged copy of The Chronic. (My parents wouldn’t let me listen to such filth, so I labeled the cassette “Mazzy Star.”) But digital piracy was different: On a college campus in the late ’90s, you could find access to every song ever recorded, for free.
It began with low-quality MP3s sourced from Internet chat rooms. By the end of my first semester, I’d filled my 2GB hard drive. By 1998, I was downloading from servers in dorm rooms and campus computer labs across the world. Soon I was hosting my own. There was, in the early days of Internet music piracy, a certain free-for-all camaraderie. Most pirates were teenage boys. We liked rap music, video games, pranks. It felt like fun.
In 1999, I switched to Napster. Shawn Fanning, who wrote the original code for the application, was, like me, a teenager spending much of his time in the Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, underground. But Napster brought digital copyright infringement to the mainstream, and soon a generational shift was taking place. Everyone my age shared music, and no one thought twice about it. Originally I don’t even think I understood I was a pirate; that came later.
In 2001, Napster shut down its servers in response to a federal order. That same year I graduated, and by this time I had several thousand albums. Now it was a habit. For the next 12 years the pattern repeated: I’d find a source of pirated material—a new technology or some new operator. I’d use it for a while, maybe a few years. Then, inevitably, a lawsuit or a criminal prosecution would shut the site down, and I’d move on. With time, the sources became better, offering more material, with higher quality. But with each step they became harder to find.
I began sourcing files from Napster’s successors—Grokster, Kazaa, and Limewire, among others. Napster had sought legitimacy, was domiciled in the United States, and was backed by established venture capitalists whose exit plan was an initial public offering or corporate buyout. The second generation of peer-to-peer entrepreneurs had shadier funding sources, incorporated themselves in island states like Vanuatu, and bundled their applications with intrusive spyware. In time, civil lawsuits from the entertainment industry drove them all out of business.
In 2004, I started torrenting. The technology had grown out of the for-profit peer-to-peer space, but popular sites like the Pirate Bay didn’t even try to function as business concerns. The founders of the site were ideological in nature, seeking a revolution in copyright law. For intellectual property to continue to exist, you needed limited digital reproduction rights. These guys didn’t like limits. At 25, I didn’t either. I started hoarding data—not just music, but movies, television shows, and books.
As I grew more familiar with the technology, I moved away from the Pirate Bay to private, invitation-only networks like Demonoid and Oink’s Pink Palace. The sites functioned as cooperatives, requesting uploads from each user. You couldn’t just “leech” free media like you could on the Pirate Bay—you had to contribute files or bandwidth of your own. There was a utopian aspect to them, and they had everything.
In 2007, Oink’s Pink Palace was shut down. Its founder, a British database administrator named Alan Ellis, was arrested on a felony racketeering charge. Ellis was later exonerated at trial, but the event made me wonder—was I a collaborative participant in a utopian underground economy, as I believed? Or was I a pawn in a massive conspiracy to defraud? Could I, too, be prosecuted? When the Pirate Bay was raided, its administrators weren’t as lucky as Ellis. Eventually, they all spent time in jail.
In 2009, I subscribed to a Usenet provider, for $15 a month. This meant, for the first time, I was paying to pirate. Usenet was an old technology, the predecessor to the modern Internet forum. Popular in the ’80s, by the time I subscribed it was a wasteland, a graffiti wall where underground groups posted pirated material. The providers selling access to these derelict boards were clearly profiteering off the copyrighted material of others, and I doubt they had any illusions about what they were doing.
That same year I started frequenting MP3 blogs. These were run by hobbyists, one of the last gasps of the amateur Internet I’d grown up with. The bloggers were finicky genre obsessives building archival collections from overlooked subcultures: stoner metal, chillwave, screwed-up Houston rap. I found some of my favorite music from these anti-corporate channels—truly weird, authentically independent stuff, far outside the industry mainstream. But these curators didn’t actually host the music. They outsourced that risk to gray-market businesses called “digital storage lockers,” which hosted data, no questions asked.
In 2012, Megaupload, the leading digital storage locker, was shut down by the FBI, and its proprietor Kim Dotcom was arrested by a SWAT team. He was living in a mansion in New Zealand at the time; he drove a convertible Rolls-Royce Phantom; the authorities seized more than $50 million from his bank accounts. That same year, my Usenet provider mysteriously went offline. I moved back to torrents, finagling an invitation to What.cd, the successor site to Oink’s Pink Palace. Soon I was on several other private torrent sites as well. To protect myself from entertainment industry subpoenas, I rented a “seedbox”—a storage partition on a private server that didn’t advertise my home IP address. Once again, I was paying to pirate, now almost 20 bucks a month.
The further the pirates were driven underground, the better they got. Music had moved from the MP3 to Free Lossless Audio Codec, or FLAC, a new format that offered perfect CD quality. Movies were uploaded in glorious 1080p. Television shows were available within minutes of airing, sometimes copied from “backhaul” sources that provided better image quality than even a legal cable subscription. (To get access to these production files, the pirates must have had somebody inside the television studio or cable company—they often did.) And the scope of these underground libraries was enormous: By 2013, What.cd was serving a hundred thousand torrenters a month and hosting more than half a million albums, including dozens of never-before-digitized “lost” albums previously only available to vinyl collectors.
The torrenters were the last of the ideologues: anti-profit, pro-freedom political dissidents who volunteered tremendous amounts of time and energy to keeping the file-sharing ecosystem alive, at considerable personal risk. But they operated outside the protection of the law, and this made them vulnerable. Soon the private sites became targets for extortionists, who bombarded their infrastructure with denial-of-service attacks while demanding tribute in bitcoin—a digital variation on the Mafia’s old “protection” racket. What.cd managed to put down these attacks, but hosting costs for the site ballooned, and the admins put out a call for donations. Their plea appealed to my conscience—or something like that—and in 2013, I sent this anonymous group of digital outlaws a charitable gift of $100.
But in 2014, I finally caved. Piracy was becoming too expensive and time-consuming—after a certain point, it was cheaper to subscribe to Spotify and Netflix. Individual ownership of “private” digital property was disappearing; in the new paradigm, digital goods were corporate property, with users paying for limited access. Using Spotify for the first time, I immediately understood that the corporations had won—its scope and convenience made torrenting music seem antique. For the first time, a legal business was offering a product that was superior to what was available underground.
I was still uncomfortable with signing all of my digital ownership rights away; practically, it was the obvious solution. There was a lesson there. The entertainment industries had morally hectored their consumers for years, with no perceivable results. Their trade organizations had sued thousands of average file-sharers and cooperated with law enforcement to go after the site operators. Again, no effect. Finally, they’d changed course and adopted new technologies to provide unlimited access. People, especially young people, scrambled to sign up, and generational attitudes toward copyright rapidly reversed, precipitating a cultural shift. Piracy was never cool, exactly, but it had once brought a certain cachet. In the streaming era, it was the equivalent of operating a ham radio.
Ironically, I was now a writer, and my commercial viability in that field depended on others respecting boundaries of copyright that I for years had not. In fact, when my book started popping up on torrent sites, it was a vicarious thrill for me. (This opinion was not shared by my publisher.) I still had my files, too—the relics of a previous era. All told, there were more than 100,000 MP3s, and it would have taken more than a year of continuous listening to hear them all. They were scattered across nine hard drives, including the original 2GB clunker I’d brought with me to college. With the cloud looming, they were worthless.
The Internet had left its adolescence. Now it was my turn. In late 2014, I loaded the drives into a plastic bag and brought them to a data destruction firm in Queens, New York. I expected to pay, but the technician there told me that, for such a small job, he’d be willing to do it for free. He led me around back to the service area, where he proceeded to destroy all nine drives with a pneumatic nail gun. With each drive, he blasted a half dozen nails into its housing, then picked it up, and shook it against his ear to listen for the telltale rattle of its shattered magnetic core. When he was done, he gathered the drives and threw them into a dumpster, on top of thousands of others.
For more, read the author’s book How Music Got Free, out this month from Viking: