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Why can't we do better than these crappy torrent sites?

P2P sites are getting poisoned again – and nobody seems to care

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Here's a puzzling thing that gets lost in the copyright wars. Why don't we demand more from music services? Today's P2P services are embarrassingly crappy – but is this the best we're ever going to get? The very proposition is an insult to our intelligence.

Since Napster closed, they've always been a dispiriting experience. Who needs to chat to a Ukrainian crack addict while choosing a movie – or dabble in a get-rich quick fraud?

("We have a ration of 3 women to men: Busty Russians" promises one popular Torrent tracker I logged onto today. You see – there isn't even a spell checker.) Is there something heartwarming about boosting the business interests of a Neo Nazi?

And technically, too, they're a major fail. Ideally, we'd build networks geared towards shifting movie and music content around nicely, from the ground up – and not start from here. But even as the most basic music offerings, they're rubbish – the searches are hopeless and the quality control zero.

Now we can see why – people who want stuff for free overridingly just don't care. Via Ars Technica we learn of a study that reports that 30 per cent of files on the major BitTorrent portals are "poisoned", with many of the garbage files having been planted there by anti-piracy agencies operating for the music business. Zombie users don't care – apparently they download most of them anyway, with 25 per cent of all downloads being in some way compromised, or junk files.

This might have a familiar ring to it. Many years ago, I spoke to Matt Warne, who'd just left his job as head of IFPI's technology unit. (You can tell it was a long time ago – IFPI still had a technology unit back then.) It was Warne's idea to poison the new post-Napster P2P networks with toxic files – files that purported to be a digitised version of the sound recording, but merely contained noise. Warne eventually quit the post in disgust, vowing never to return.

But it was the mutual zombie part of the story that fascinated me then, and does today. Step back and think about it for a moment.

"I, Zombie"

Here we have a transaction that encourages both parties to be dumb. The downloader wants "stuff", but doesn't care that a third might be garbage – and obviously doesn't care that it's already a sub-optimal experience for all the reasons I've already outlined. For its part, the music company – supposedly the experts in finding, distributing and promoting talent – instead finds itself distributing millions of copies of dead and useless files. Both parties are encouraged to be something less than a fully alive human. It's like something out of a science fiction satire.

This is an incredible collective failure of the imagination. From my pulpit here at El Reg I've suggested many things over the years, from personal file-sharing over Bluetooth, to legal file-sharing clubs, to books that find speakers and start playing some music – all of which we should have now. Many people would pay for such things – but they all have something in common: we don't know how many people would pay and how much because the legitimate paying market (two-thirds of all users, remember) hasn't been given the choice. Maybe some are bad ideas few would want. Maybe some are good ideas that wouldn't support the producers well. Everything and anything should be tried.

But the militant nerd community – the people who should be forging partnerships and going out and building this stuff, as Spotify and others have done – has simply found a nice trench and wants to sit in it. The trench gets more crap piled into it each year, as the cause becomes more and more hopeless, but they won't budge.

Historically, all technology has been used to create new markets for creators. Maybe it can be again. Right now, pretending that today's torrent sites are as good as it's going to get feels like pretending that the emperor is fully clothed. ®

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