This is What Happens When a Bootleg Website Falls

By Darren Orf on at

Bootleg websites, usually tucked away in some shady digital corner filled with pornographic pop up ads and potentially malignant viruses, are a permanent fixture on the internet. Offering up buckets of illegally free content, these sites' creators are the reason why publishing execs toss and turn in their sleep.

Some become internet celebrities and millionaires, much like Megaupload's Kim Dotcom, most others aren't so fortunate. The New York Times' Jenna Wortham documented the life of Hana Beshara, known as Queen Phara and founder of the infamous NinjaVideo. The website's short, two-year lifespan between 2008 and 2010 allowed users to download almost any TV show or movie you could imagine — all free of charge.

NinjaVideo, as well as a glutton of other online piracy sites, represented the untamed lawlessness of digital copyright infringement. But in 2008, legal streaming options became available to the masses, and these illegal sites suddenly became even bigger targets than before, as the article describes:

Unknown to Ms. Beshara and her collaborators, NinjaVideo had been targeted by the Motion Picture Association of America, which says the site aided in the infringement of millions of dollars' worth of copyrighted movies, television programs and software products. NinjaVideo went live the same year as Hulu and Netflix Instant, Netflix's video streaming service, and the M.P.A.A. was trying to reroute Internet users to legitimate online streaming outlets like them. The M.P.A.A. identified what it saw as other offending sites, too, like NinjaThis.com and TVShack.net, and funnelled the names to the government. Eventually, those sites went offline as well.

Wortham describes Beshara as a kind of scapegoat who the federal government wanted to "make an example of" to prove that they meant business. After spending 16 months in prison, Beshara was released in April 2013, marked by an exuberant proclamation posted online: "I'm back bitches." However, her parole keeps from contacting any of her old NinjaVideo compatriots until 2015, but even if she has no plans to return to the piracy game, she still has no regrets.

Bootleg or piracy websites are an interesting cog in the digital streaming machine. Don't get me wrong, they're illegal...extremely illegal. Beshara says she made near $210,000 in only two years, according to NYT. But if it wasn't for these sites' existence, it's hard to picture what online streaming would look like today. Bootleg websites fulfilled (and still fulfil...don't lie) that basic Veruca Salt desire of "I want it now" and the publishing industry may need to adjust to those desires.

Content providers, Mr. Swanston says, will eventually have to consider new delivery models that are more closely aligned with how people behave. He imagines collaborations with streaming services to release content or simultaneously scheduling theater and digital streaming releases — ideas he hopes his company can help bring about. Some companies, like BitTorrent, which makes file-sharing technology, are already experimenting in this arena.

Just this Friday, BitTorrent teamed up with Radiohead's Thom Yorke to release a full length solo album, a first glimpse of BitTorrent's future role in digital distribution, so in some ways, the way we purchase creative content online might already be changing. NinjaVideo, and other sites like it, are no doubt criminal operations, but those illegal outside pressures needed to exist in order to form the paid streaming structure we have today. That's why sites like NinjaVideo will always be around.

Be sure to check out the entire read of "The Unrepentant Bootlegger" over at The New York Times.