Torrent-tastic, Punk-pickers!

Getting to grips with file-sharing technology

Note: since writing this, Punktorrents has closed its registration. However, registration is often re-opened for a day or two (usually on the weekend) so I’ll post up the details if that happens.

Despite the fact that I ventured into the world of the hairless head many moons ago (more recently by nature rather than design), I still try and keep the grey matter inside up to date and modern. So I decided to try and fathom out a bit more about torrents and trackers or, more precisely, what they are and how I, an Old Punk, can use them. For all the other Old Punks out there, here’s what I discovered.

Before I get into the details, a word of warning: the sharing of copyrighted material using torrent sotware is technically illegal (the software itself is not). But, if what you are sharing is long-deleted or as rare as hen’s teeth and not from a label or group affiliated to the music industry’s police force (check out the RIAA Radar for starters), then you really shouldn’t be afraid of using the software to share music. Remember, too, that there are some bands and labels who actively encourage the sharing of their music, or who at least recognise the advantages of exposure that file-sharing brings and don’t prosecute those who are sharing what they create. Be smart and you should be safe.

On with the show…

BitTorrent is a type of peer-to-peer (P2P) network (Napster was a famous P2P network, although it worked in a slightly different way to BitTorrent). P2P networks allow people to share files with each other over the internet. To be able to use the BitTorrent network, you first need to install torrent client software on your computer.

A torrent client is the program you use to upload and download files. It does two things: it chops the file(s) you want to share up into lots of little pieces, creating an additional torrent file in the process, and makes them available for sharing; and, if there are files you want to download, it connects to all the other computers containing pieces of those files (providing they’ve all used the same torrent file) that it can find via the tracker and re-assembles them in one place on your computer.

A torrent file is a small ‘signature’ file that contains some basic information about the file (or, more usually, a set of files in a folder) that you want to share, most commonly mp3 files (although you can also share other content, such as video files, using torrents).

A tracker is in effect an online database of files that people like you want to share with each other. But rather than upload megabytes and megabytes of audio (or whatever) files to the tracker, the small torrent file is uploaded instead. The tracker makes the torrent file available for download to other users, which then enables them to download the main file(s) directly from your computer. The tracker also uses the torrent file to keep track of who has downloaded all or part of the files that are being shared.

A seeder is someone who makes a file or files available for sharing and uploads the relevant torrent file to a tracker.

A leecher is someone who uses the torrent file on the tracker to link to other peoples computers so that they can download the files being shared.

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This is the clever bit that differentiates BitTorrent networks from other P2P networks: firstly, more than one person can be downloading the same file from you at the same time, as they each download different bits of your file; secondly, because the tracker know which computers have which bits of the file, it allows the leechers’ computers to immediately seed the bits of files they’ve just downloaded to others who still need them, and vice versa. It’s like a big simultaneous file swap shop that continues until all users have downloaded all of the bits they need from everyone else until everyone has a complete set.

So, that’s the basics explained (any questions, just raise your hand). On to the practicals.

Before you do anything, you need to install a client. I’ve used two torrent clients, Azureus and uTorrent, and found both easy to install, set up and use thanks to a couple of great walkthroughs at Punk Torrents. Azureus has a bigger install footprint and is more complex (if you want it to be), but is open source, very configurable and (apparently) Mac-friendly (Mac users could also try Transmission, although it may need a simple fix to work properly). uTorrent is much smaller after installation and the configuration options less scary looking, but it is closed source, PC-only and now owned by a commercial company, so future versions may not be free of spyware or other things the owners may also wish to install on your machine without your knowledge.

Once you’ve got the client installed, you’ll need to find a tracker where you can upload and download torrents. There are some big trackers out there, with hundreds of thousands of users and files and requiring no registration (with all the security risks that entails), but for virtually all of my torrent needs I head straight to Punk Torrents. You’ll need to sign up to be able to share files but it’s free and quick to do this. Since joining I’ve managed to track down some great old albums from my past, ones that have either gone walkabouts or have suffered as a result of my rather hectic lifestyle in years gone by, as well as check out some cool new stuff that I’ve not heard before. I’ve also had the chance to share a lot of my old collection with those keen to add to or fill the gaps in theirs, and share tracks from bands who I think are worth listening to. Personally, I don’t share whole albums from bands or labels that are genuinely independent and could do with the cash (although some on PT do), as I personally prefer to spend a few of my hard-earned readies supporting these people directly. It sits well with my conscience.

There is much debate about file-sharing at the moment but, with common sense, I can’t see any problem with it. Unless, of course, you happen to be a capitalist whore who sees music as just one more product to be milked for every last drop of profit. In which case – A BIG PUNK ROCK ‘FUCK YOU!’

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