Mars Review of Books: Issue 1

The Warez Scene by Reid Scoggin ~sitful-hatred

Jul 31, 2022 • ~bidbel

Warez: The Infrastructure and Aesthetics of Piracy

by Martin Paul Eve

Punctum Books, 444 pp, $26.00

Human modes of engaging with the world flow organically from the constraints that the world imposes. We respond intuitively, for instance, to the fact that mass is bound by gravity, that our subjectivity is bound to its point in space, that communication is governed by time and distance. We act on the world by recognizing these limitations and exploiting the patterns implied by them. We extend our capabilities by coordinating with other agents, acting on the world as it is observed or conveyed to us, sharing our models, and arranging our own systems.

The digital network which now encompasses the globe (often referred to simply as ‘the Internet,’ although the Internet protocol is but one of many) is a metaphysical space with its own frame and emergent properties. Our ability to organize and operate is still catching up with its possibilities, but we can learn about its boundaries by observing the edges.

Digital space was created to collapse or suspend material constraints. In this new realm, distance is compressed to latency (the milliseconds between initiation of a network request and response), and time is primarily demarcated by the drift of linguistic or aesthetic signifiers—internet lingo, meme formats, web design—across eras. Digital records are presented to the observer on equal footing—tweets from this morning exist on the same horizontal plane as blog posts from 2012, textfiles from 1987, chat logs from 1996, or scans of 500-year-old manuscripts. Scarcity shifts from nodes to edges, as paths between content become the focus of attention and curation. Some laws persist across the vale; physical entropy, which bounds all existence, manifests in the digital world as bit rot, the gradual corruption of digital data due to minor failures in the devices on which they are stored.

A fundamental difference between the material world and the digital is the near-zero marginal cost to produce digital copies. An individual can ‘possess’ a file like a physical object, but he can replicate and distribute it in a way akin to magic. This characteristic undermines the notion of property—a contradiction that went unresolved until the 2009 unveiling of Bitcoin’s Nakomoto consensus, a set of rules for verifying digital ownership without a trusted third party. In the decades prior, the dialectic between the legacy model of scarcity and digital abundance played out inside chat rooms and File Transfer Protocol (FTP) servers. For the past 40-plus years, the most robust and perhaps best known arena for this drama of “digital ownership” and “digital theft” has been an underground network known as the Warez Scene or simply the Scene.

The Scene is above all an open-ended game: a para-economic competition between teams of individuals, known as release groups, working according to a formalized division of labor. The game is played like this: Media such as films and video games are produced and distributed through legitimate channels, sold to end consumers, and protected with software guardrails to prevent unauthorized copying. Members of the Scene compete with each other to front-run this process, circumvent any protections, and distribute the stripped, formatted, and re-branded copy through a network of servers around the world. Velocity, volume, style, and quality are the metrics that are used to quantify the prestige of a group.

The Scene began in the 1980s on pre-internet digital networks known as Bulletin Board Systems, or BBSes. To access these BBSes—akin to forums or social networks—users literally dialed in to a remote server or PC. The first incarnation of the Scene took hold in these comparatively primitive text-mode spaces, which displayed scrolling text art and megabytes of assembled media. These origins have left their mark on the aesthetic signatures of the Scene: Even today, eighties-style graffiti motifs adorn text files that the Scene packages together with pirated hundred-gigabyte Call of Duty games and 4K resolution Marvel movies.

Beginning around 1994, and hastening after the police raid of the Park Central BBS (a prominent board) in 1996, the BBS scene gave way to the Internet Scene as the old platform retreated into a historical note. Practices, standards, and software calcified in their new environment.

As with the BBS scene, members of the Internet Scene compete to demonstrate elite skills. Status games function as cohesion mechanisms, establishing identity and hierarchy in a disembodied, secretive, and frequently adversarial space. The participants in this game, release groups, are pseudonymous clans of skilled pirates. Release groups encode content according to formalized standards, and distribute it to hidden, exclusive servers (called topsites). Topsites archive terabytes of pirated releases, and run custom software stacks to monitor activity and score the game, granting prestige to the winners. The competition is to be first—first to upload a coveted new album, first to crack a popular video game, first to relay a release from another topsite. The reward is notoriety and access to topsite slots: scarce accounts that require deep investment to maintain. Downstream from this are competitions in distribution; lower-ranking members of release groups, or independent operators known as ‘couriers’ make use of high-bandwidth connections and specialized tools, racing to distribute the release to as many topsites as possible.

The Scene is further organized into sub-scenes, with release groups specializing in one or another media format (the Game Scene, the MP3 Scene, and so on). Each sub-scene has its own bylaws, written codes, and understood folkways. Strict rules govern bitrate, filesize, encoding format, and almost always require a photo included in the distributed content as proof that the uploader possesses a physical copy of the release. Failing to meet the written standards gets a release ‘nuked’—removed from the topsite with the uploader demerited. The result is a remarkably uniform, professional system of distribution.

Topsites take on the role of something like a state: a shared space that enforces the written code and governs access to resources, while competing with other topsites in a parallel prestige subeconomy. A topsite maintains order by controlling access to finite slots; it attracts ‘citizens’ with its massive archive of promptly uploaded content. The desire to maintain access to this trove keeps participants within the permissible bounds of behavior. Slots are so scarce that even being in a top scene group does not guarantee access; some number may be awarded to the group to distribute among members, who must maintain their slots by contributing gigabytes of fresh media every week—an impossibility for anybody not within or directly adjacent to release groups.

The game carries a fundamental tension within itself. The tangible reward for competing is access, because the organs of the Scene are exclusive. The first rule of any topsite is not to talk about the topsite. The identities of participants and addresses of infrastructure are all closely held and totally inaccessible to outsiders. Scene participants view themselves as the elite, who have arrived in their positions through demonstrations of ability. The competition is purely for an audience made up of others like themselves; even sharing releases to outsiders is a sin.

But Scene groups are aware that their releases percolate to the wider world, and that savvy teenagers everywhere know who CODEX or RAZOR 1911 are (renowned and accomplished release groups, in case you don’t). While the game is formally played for themselves in secret, there is tacit understanding that their glories echo to the world outside. the Scene, after all, could not persist across time if its allure and cultural cache did not draw in new blood.

Huge swaths of pirated media online have flowed downward from the Scene over the years, via torrent trackers such as the Pirate Bay. And yet by design, those who download music or movies cracked by The Scene rarely know the source from which it emerges. One fingerprint that sometimes remains is the names of downloaded files: If you’ve ever wondered why torrented archives have the word SKiDROW appended, or use periods rather than spaces in between words, it’s because these are formal naming conventions preserved from the topsites where the files were originally released. Another vestige of the Scene is the distinctive visual art it produces, around which a world of its own, known as the Demoscene, has grown.

ASCII or ANSI, the simplest commonly used text encoding formats, are the earliest tools of digital art. Prior to the web or multimedia computing, Usenet and BBS denizens made use of the primitive accommodations of text mode displays and limited color palettes to create simple images; information and art began their lives on the network as a single format. The roots of the Scene lie in this era and in these spaces.

The art of the Scene carries motifs which by now have become rigid and institutionalized. NFO (‘info’) files distributed with releases are adorned with ASCII art decoration: frames surrounding the body of text incorporating illustrations of skulls, demons, and weapons, for instance, or fluid calligraphic sketches evocative of subway graffiti. These artifacts are the primary aesthetic signature of the Scene for outsiders, and the one most familiar to teenagers torrenting the latest GTA or Batman installment. Little has changed in style or format since the early days; an NFO file from a contemporary release is nearly interchangeable with one from decades prior, both using the same standardized encoding that could be opened with the same PC applications.

Pirated software and video games, in particular, come with additional artistic extras. Installers and ‘cracks’ (software that defeats copy protection) tote images or animations, often accompanied by synthesized music, to convey the release group’s sophistication. Groups work to re-brand the release, with the release group given top billing over the “official” game or software developers. These images and videos are often impressive enough to be appreciated in their own right; YouTube is filled with recordings and compilations of keygen music in particular, the songs that accompany a particular type of crack software that generates registration codes.

Just as text and art on the network were of a piece prior to speciating, the Scene and the Demoscene were once a single body. The Demoscene is the Scene as a pure producer of art. Similarly competitive and institutional, Demoscene groups create audio-visual animations using procedurally generative computational tricks to squeeze shockingly impressive effects out of binary executables the size of a small image. Categories are specified by filesize; 64 kilobytes is a common format, but the most impressive are fully three-dimensional animations and synthesized music squeezed into less than four kilobytes. Achieving these results requires a nearly magical ability to manipulate the lowest levels of PC hardware, and the resulting works are extraordinarily detailed considering their constraints.

The Demoscene shares a quiet but persistent relationship with its darker brother; they frequently share members, as the low-level hacking skills required for one are useful for the other. The Demoscene itself is completely legitimate, though, and organizes in the open. Assembly, a semiannual conference and competition in Finland, is recognized as an object of ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’ by UNESCO. The Demoscene sprung directly from the early game-cracking scene, however, and maintains a semblance of its organizational structure.

Warez: The Infrastructure and Aesthetics of Piracy, from University of London Professor of Literature, Technology, and Publishing Martin Paul Eve, is an adequate, high-level survey of the mechanical processes and defined rules of the game the Scene plays. The early chapters describe the Scene’s operation at a high level, including the social organization of its release groups, an explanation of how the Scene fits into the larger ecosystem of digital piracy, and the technical architecture of the topsites and networks. Eve compares the distributed nature of these networks to that of organized crime. As in an organized crime network, Eve notes, the Scene adheres to “guiding documents [that] resemble quasi-judicial frameworks,” although those documents sit in “perpetual tension with its distributed and anarchic decentralization.” The Scene, according to Eve, culminates in “an illegal, online, alternative reality game with aesthetic subcultural stylings that operates on a quasi-economic basis.”

The book’s late chapters explore the aesthetic modes and motifs of art produced by the Scene, especially in relation to the Demoscene. Eve rounds out Warez with a history of major police raids and their consequences—these are pivotal events that often result in significant reorganization, following arrests and infrastructure shutdowns. A lengthy appendix consists mainly of an index of topsites and lower distribution nodes, gathered from the textfile collection, which traces a complex graph of groups and sites. Eve does well to sketch the convergence of historical and technological contexts that cascaded into a self-sustaining and resilient parallel infrastructure, yet remained, ultimately, a human enterprise: “a community of individuals that relies on trust.”

Eve’s central thesis is that the Scene exists as an alternate reality game (ARG)—an imposition of rules upon real-life actions, to create a shared framework with other participants, towards some end, in this case, demonstration of value toward the accumulation of prestige: “A world within a world, separated from ours, with different rules and codes of conduct,” “made and broken on individual reputation and notoriety.” The contents of releases are secondary to the fact that your group releases it first, and the true prize is recognition. The game is self-contained, ritualistic, and endless.

This thesis is convincing but unexciting. Eve structures his book around this argument, but the true allure of his subject lies elsewhere. The Scene may resemble a game the same way that any competition (such as the world of politics, or the art world) does, but what makes it unique is that it is an opaque secret society with a deep, little-known history and sophisticated politics. The sociology and internal histories of the Scene would make a better point of focus than litigating subcultural studies frameworks. The closest we get to this (outside of a handful of anecdotes) is a history of police raids, recounted through media reports.

Warez suffers from a few more weaknesses. First and foremost it lacks narrative; rather than seeking participants or finding individual stories, Eve has consulted existing academic literature and an archive of textfiles from releases and topsites from the first decade of this century. This leaves his perspective both locked in a particular time and lacking a sense of chronology. The impermeability of release groups and topsites make this problem difficult to rectify, but one is left disappointed if looking for a historical accounting or genealogy.

To Eve’s credit, there seem to be no other commercially published works on this subject, a surprising fact considering its long history and real-world influence. Eve takes the subject seriously, though he routinely indulges in grad student brainworm rituals, e.g. scolding over the ‘colonialism’ of ASCII text encoding. And despite the fact that Eve holds himself aloof from his subject, the reader can deduce a deep familiarity and interest in the topic, if a discomfort with his sense of identification.

Eve’s discussion and understanding of the technology involved is competent and grounded. His analysis of the infrastructure of the Scene includes descriptions of the strengths and limitations of protocols, and a detour to describe the custom FTP software written for various topsites during the nineties and early aughts. Here again, however, Eve is hindered by the fundamental weakness in his research, a total reliance on decontextualized fragments of text. There are surely volumes that could be written about the history of the Scene’s covert infrastructure and its ability to persist over time, but we are only offered a taste.

The most striking feature of the Scene is the nearly static nature of its organization and aesthetics. The preservation of form can be attributed to several factors: While the Scene exists on the same physical infrastructure as the rest of the net, it sits outside of it by means of protocol and gate-keeping. The Scene’s infrastructure is an ossified, standardized assembly of rules, network protocols, and traditions. The protocols it chose were no more decentralized than the Internet Protocol, but over time they have benefited from their obscurity as they have fallen out of common use. In addition to avoiding adversarial attention, these protocols are set apart from the vulgar networks: They provide a sacred space.

As a subculture centered around illegal activity, scene members have no recourse to the state or external bodies. Like other outlaw societies such as the Yakuza or ‘Ndragheta, institutional bodies were formed to fill the need for dispute resolution and collective coordination. In the Scene, these are councils made up of members of groups with long standing. Participation over time is not just proof of capability, but implicitly demonstrates personal stake. Individual members with long histories are woven more tightly into the broad in-group, both by historical reputation and the threat of being revealed to outsiders. Contrary to traditional organized crime, though, the Scene’s structure is rhizomatic and resistant to disruption, since there is no singular hierarchy to disrupt. The game is a protocol that can be replicated and rebuilt along with infrastructure.

The Scene is held together by trust and camaraderie, despite a highly competitive environment and sophisticated technical measures taken to preserve anonymity. The traditional security mechanism of obscurity—remaining ‘underground’, with leaks and disclosures of details seen as a norm violation and grounds for censure—is only made possible by the cooperation of its participants. The looming potential of raids by law enforcement present an ever-present threat that functions as an external enemy as a point of cohesion, and undoubtedly creates a sense of excitement and rebellion. Going up against the global scrutiny of police, and coming out on top for years on end, feeds into narratives of elite status and attracts the attention of talented new recruits.

Perhaps the most important mechanism for the Scene’s persistence is its development of a social identity in-group dynamic, with barriers constructed and maintained between participants and the wider world. Even co-pirates on P2P networks are considered beneath them, held in the same regard as for-profit bootleggers or the normies buying physical media. The only meaningful token is participation, which is bound up with a social order illegible to the uninitiated. Demands for personal investment, recognition for individual achievement, and specialized jargon all contribute to a system of meaning and tribal belonging. Participants find ways to memorialize the people and events in their hidden world, publishing newsletters with excerpts from exclusive IRC channels, and announcing news and events to the world in the NFO files distributed with releases. Eve observes that “[c]reating an alternative reality is not enough. One must, it seems, cement it with magazines, documentation, and other persistent artifacts to perpetuate the game.” Beyond publications and self-documentation, the game bleeds into the real world, where the Scene can be recognized as an unstoppable force of nature—alternately ingenious hacker Robin Hoods, or malign criminals bent on impoverishing artists.

The Scene is no longer the prime mover of digital content in the way that it was at the turn of the century, but the social form persists. The game will go on as long as the status it bestows carries weight for talented teenagers and bored office workers. What is surprising about it is not the fact that it arose, but that it continues to self-organize and operate, while remaining beyond the gaze of the public or state. As our world becomes increasingly networked and decentralized, it may become evident that the Scene is not only a fascinating relic of the past, but also an augur of the future.

by Reid Scoggin