The illegal downloading and sharing on the Internet of copyrighted material such as pirated movies, music and games accounts for almost one-quarter of all global traffic on the World Wide Web, according to a new study.
"Americans will be shocked to realize that almost one in every four of the bits that move around the Internet is pirated content," said Robert D. Atkinson, president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation to The Washington Times.
"It's a broadband tax that all Americans are paying," he added, because such high-density data streams clog networks and slow legitimate traffic.
The study, which the foundation released Monday, was conducted by British anti-piracy consultants Envisional. The authors analyzed data from several previous studies of Internet traffic and looked in detail at the material being shared in several samples of thousands of transactions on different peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and other content-sharing services.
P2P networks are groups of users who have downloaded special software packages onto to their computers that enable them to search the computers of other users for audio and visual material — and also let other users rifle through their digital libraries.
The copyrighted content being shared illegally included films, television episodes, music and computer games and software, the report said.
Because the data files containing videos and games are so large, such content-sharing services absorb enormous amounts of bandwidth. The report estimated that 18 percent of all global Internet traffic is users sharing files over just one popular P2P service, BitTorrent.
By contrast, all the Voice-Over-Internet-Protocol telephone services such as Skype or Google Voice together account for just 1 percent of global traffic.
Envisional concluded on the basis of the samples it examined that nearly two-thirds of all the material being shared on BitTorrent — 11 percent of global Internet traffic — was clearly copyright-infringing.
Other content-sharing services illegally making copyrighted material available accounted for another 12 percent, the report stated, meaning a total of 23 percent of global Internet traffic was copyrighted material being shared illegally.
Mr. Atkinson called that "a pretty good estimate," adding that it might be on the conservative side because it excluded pornography — the copyright status of which researchers did not seek to establish, but much of which might also be copyrighted.
"This is not just people watching one movie," Mr. Atkinson said, "This is large-scale, organized piracy … and people are making money."
Last year, researchers from several universities in Europe and the U.S. analyzed content-sharing patterns on two large BitTorrent portals.
Reza Rejaie, an associate professor at the University of Oregon and one of the report's authors, told The Times the researchers found "a highly skewed distribution of contributors," with just 100 providing 75 percent of all the content downloaded from those two sites during the months they studied the sites.
They also found evidence that some of those "very heavy publishers" appeared to be commercial concerns that were making money either by selling advertising or by offering faster, premium downloads for a fee.
"Some of those sites were very high-value," Mr. Rejaie said.
But the response by some copyright holders has drawn criticism.
Many copyright lawsuits are "quite legitimate," said Rebecca Jeschke, media relations director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet rights group based in San Francisco.
But she told The Times in an e-mail that a recent series of "mass infringement cases, where hundreds or even thousands of plaintiffs are lumped together" were "deeply flawed."
In one case filed last week, for instance, Delaware-incorporated XPays, Inc., which owns the copyright to the Paris Hilton sex tape, is seeking damages against 843 "John Does" — BitTorrent users identified only by the Internet addresses from which they logged onto the service.
Ms. Jeschke called such efforts "copyright trolling," saying companies were trying "to grow businesses out of suing Internet users … exploiting the massive damages in copyright law in order to pressure defendants into settling quickly."
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