BitTorrent - The future of fansubs?

by Daniel DeLorme, Jun 8th 2003
Note: for the purposes of this editorial I will make a distinction between "fansubbing" and "piracy", although many people feel there's not much of a difference.


In the past few months, the world of fansubbing has been seeing a major change in the way digisubs are distributed. IRC used to be the place where fansubbers distributed their new releases, and it still is, but more and more files are now being distributed with BitTorrent.

BitTorrent is a protocol designed for large scale distribution of files on the web without having to bear the bandwidth costs normally associated with large scale deployments. For the end user it's very simple: once you have the BitTorrent software installed, you just have to click on a link and it downloads the file. But as it downloads, it also uploads the parts it has received to other people who want to download the file. Because of this, the original server doesn't incur the huge bandwidth costs which have traditionally been the bane of multimedia websites.

Here's a brief technical explanation of the process (You can skip this paragraph if you are not tech-inclined). In order make a file downloadable with BitTorrent, first one needs to create a meta-file which contains information about the file to download. Among other things, this meta-file contains hash codes to validate the integrity for the different segments of the file, and the address of the tracker which keeps track of everyone who is currently downloading the file. The meta-file (usually with the extension .torrent) is then placed on a web server and when it is accessed by a browser the file is passed on to the BitTorrent software. With the information contained in the meta-file, the software first allocates a chunk of space for the file on the hard drive, then it contacts the tracker to get a list of peers who are downloading the same file, and then it contacts those peers and asks them to send chunks of the file. As each chunk of the file arrives (in random order), it becomes available to be sent to other peers who are requesting it.

So basically, each file has its own miniature peer-to-peer network (called a swarm) where peers download and upload from each other until everyone has the complete file. Of course, this requires that all of the file fragments be present in the swarm, and the only way to make sure of that is to have at least one of the peers playing the role of seed, someone who has the complete file and so is only uploading to the swarm. When your download completes, you automatically become a seed until you close the download window. It is considered good etiquette to keep your download window open for as long as possible after your download is finished, so that you may contribute to the distribution of the file in equal amount to what you have taken. (honor among thieves...)

So what makes BitTorrent different from all those other filesharing programs? Apart from the extreme simplicity of clicking on a link to download a fansub, the difference is very simple: BitTorrent is NOT a filesharing program, it's a file distribution program. Many people mistake BitTorrent for a filesharing program because of the peer-to-peer aspect, but the truth is that even though there are peers, this is a client-server technology. The BitTorrent client software is dependant on the meta-file and the tracker on the server. Where a true peer-to-peer network is decentralized, it would be more accurate to say that BitTorrent is distributed, in the same sense as distributed computing (like seti@home).

One of the great things about BitTorrent is that it uses a tit-for-tat algorithm which makes the word "leech" fundamentally obsolete; the more you send data to others, the more they send data to you. If you were to hack the client to prevent uploading, it would reduce your download speed to a trickle. But the biggest advantage is undeniably, at least for fansubs, that it puts responsability for distribution of the file right back where it belongs: in the hands of the fansubbers.

Until now, fansubbers could only say "please stop distributing this fansub once it is licensed". But now they'll actually have some control over the distribution. When the anime becomes licensed, they'll be able to remove the central download point for the fansub - the torrent file. Of course, people will still be able to get the fansub from various p2p networks, but if the fansub didn't rely on such networks to begin with, the file would probably be much less common on them.

Let's take the case of IRC, the traditional home of digisubbers. In order to distribute a file, the fansubbers had to put the file on a Fserve (fileserver), from there it would be downloaded by other people, some of who would put the file on their own Fserve. In this way, the file would slowly spread, each operator being responsible for the files present on his own Fserve. This would often result in any kind of files being present on a particular Fserve, including DVD rips of licensed anime, and old fansubs that should have been pulled due to licensing. But since each individual can do as they please, there's really no way to make sure that all Fserves remove the appropriate files once an anime has been licensed.

In a way, fansubbers are indirectly promoting piracy by distributing their releases in an environment where piracy has free reign. Even on channels which have a no-licensed-anime policy you're almost certain to find files of licensed anime. Policing of the channel is usually slack, and even when the ops try to enforce that policy it's still a losing battle. An environment where "legitimate" releases are mixed with pirated stuff can only increase the damage done to anime companies. And if you're a true anime fan, you don't want that. In a time where the distinction between fansubbing and pirating is becoming increasingly blurry, fansubbers need to remove themselves from that pirate-friendly environment if they want to conserve the last shreds of legitimacy associated with fansubbing.

Let's face it; there's no way to stop fansubs (or piracy in general). As long as people can get something for free, even if it's at the expense of others, they'll do it. But with BitTorrent it's possible to put a greater emphasis on the actual enforcement of those semi-mythical "fansub ethics". Some will say it's pointless to try to prevent piracy when it's so easy to get a file on p2p networks, but that argument doesn't hold water; a little something is better than absolutely nothing. If you can do something to help curb rampant piracy, why not do it?

For all these reasons, I would like to encourage all fansubbers to drop support for IRC (apart from chatting of course) and start releasing uniquely with BitTorrent. I believe it's what responsible fansubbers should do.

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