between urban legends and fake files, the legacy of peer to peer counterfeiters

In the early 2000s, when the Internet began to sprout in homes, a discordant track from System of a Down was played on CD players on a loop: titled The legend of Zelda, we can hear the singer from the American group, Serj Tankian, sing with his distinctive voice an ode in honor of Link, the knight of the Nintendo saga. All accompanied by basic instrumentation and shouts of joy that suggest that the piece was recorded on a whim during a public performance.

Except that this recording of the group never really existed. Contrary to many people’s beliefs even today, System of a Down itself has denied its origins. American radio show guests “Lovelines” in 2002, Shavo Odadjian and John Dolmayan, bassist and drummer in the group, respectively, said:

The song “Legend of Zelda” found on Morpheus, KaZaa or any of the other download platforms is not ours. (…) It was probably a kid in his room, with one of these new computer programs making this piece and laying it out, claiming it was System of a Down.

Now the metal band is far from the only one that has been mistakenly attributed to songs. In videos that accumulate millions of views on YouTube, Bob Marley is still regularly rewarded with the interpretation of Don’t worry Be happy, Red red wine or bad boys (songs by Bobby McFerrin, UB40 and Inner Circle); many punk tracks are associated with the Californians from Blink 182 (much to the annoyance of Lit and Me First and Gimme Gimmes), and Nirvana has never actually recorded a track with the title Half the man I used to be (it actually is spooky, by Stone Temple Pilots).

The sinners behind these unfounded beliefs? They are called eMule, Limewire, Kazaa or eDonkey. As the response to the radio by members of System of a Down suggests, these pieces, which are still sometimes mistaken today, on the web and in the memories, are the direct result of the peer to peer era (P2P, “peer to peer”direct exchange between Internet users) and the birth of online piracy.

also read From Napster to Zone Download, a short history of Internet piracy
The home with stripped-down graphics from the eMule website, in May 2022.

A time’s scourge

Then we are in 2001. The first P2P platform dedicated to music, Napster has just closed its doors after two short years of existence under pressure from the rights holders. Very quickly followed other services: Kazaa, Limewire and above all eMule (formerly dubbed eDonkey2000) hver, each has its own protocol, but all have one big difference compared to Napster: their decentralization.

“Because there was very little moderation, these fake files kept circulating”explains Ernesto Van Der Sar, from TorrentFreak

pornographic film instead Matrixpirated version of windows crippled with viruses, poorly coded Radiohead pieces … This decentralization is the main reason why users at the time quickly grasped the idea that the file they are trying to hack may be of poor quality, if at all what they were looking for. “In the late 1990s and early 2000s, the majority of sharing was done by average Internet users, and it was harder to distinguish between quality content and poorly named files. And because there was very little moderation, these fake files keep circulating ”explains Ernesto Van Der Sar, founder of the site TorrentFreak, which specializes in sharing, piracy and copyright issues.

The exchanges that took place between users without going through a single database, the quality of a file and the associated information depended entirely on the goodwill of the person who made it available to the community. Not to mention that the 56K modems at the time often forced users to wait several hours to download a file (thus multiplying the likelihood of making mistakes), and that the rating and comment systems that can help separate the wheat from the chaff, were still very rare.

But why make files available that we know are not the right ones? “I think some people thought it would be ‘fun’ to annoy downloaders with fake files”, says Ernesto Van Der Sar. And in fact, many American Internet users today remember in the forums that one of the recurring jokes of the day was to put in place a statement made by Bill Clinton at the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair and place the most wanted files.

Added to this are the malicious people who hide malware under popular file names, and the others, more opportunistic, who renamed their files to match the terms most sought after by Internet users. This guaranteed them to see them downloaded galore and allowed them to improve theirs again “relationship” on sharing platforms, ie the relationship between what they download and what they make available. Important data, a bad relationship that may be accompanied by a slowdown in downloads or even a ban. Some went even further in quarrels and surfed on trends to make themselves known or to fool users. Like American rapper Soulja Boy, who took off his career by making his songs look popular on download platforms.

Online there are many ironic memes about viruses (here represented by one

Professionalization of hacking

This scourge of erroneous or corrupt files, condemned by, among others, the Federal Trade Commission, the US trade regulator, has disappeared as practice has evolved and spread. “It was the BitTorrent protocol that took illegal download to industrial scale”, explains Sylvain Dejean, lecturer at the University of La Rochelle and specialist in the digital economy and the Internet. According to the researcher, the joint arrival of broadband and new exchange technologies, such as BitTorrent, has gradually led to a “Community Downloader”.

BitTorrent, born in 2001, has brought out closed groups, often based on cooptation

While services like eMule or Kazaa were completely open, BitTorrent, born in 2001, brought groups out, often based on cooptation. In these smaller communities, there are few bad files in circulation, according to the economist, when they were built on one “quality requirements” and with “a strictly controlled upload / download relationship”. Like Oinks Pink Palace, whose origins author Stephen Witt tells in his book Attack on the record empire: when an entire generation commits the same crime (Castor Astral, 2016), and who thus writes on the side of it Guardian : “While some files actually remained artifacts of unknown origin, originating from indescribable Internet residents, the vast majority of MP3s actually originated from a handful of organized groups.”

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In addition, a form of “professionalization” piracy, according to Ernesto Van Der Sar, linked to the structuring of the pirate economy and competition between platforms:

Twenty years ago, it was all about sharing and discovering content. Today, people just want free music, and pirate sites exist to make money. If a site or service offers poor quality content, people will go to competitors.

If piracy still exists, it has radically changed its face: torrent files and direct downloads have made room for streaming, which today represents 95% of illegal content online, according to a report by Musso. And there are more books, sports contests and series targeted today, especially due to the proliferation of exclusive video content on platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime, Apple TV or Disney +: users who can not pay for more subscriptions without damage their bank account, they turn more to illegally uploaded content.

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Eventually, thanks to the emergence of comments, various forums and a handful of articles, justice was finally done for System of a Down, but especially for the group, which in all these years has illegally looted The legend of Zelda. Contrary to what Odadjian and Dolmayan suggested twenty years ago, the track was not recorded by a child playing on his computer, but by a very genuine group: The Rabbit Joint, originally from Maryland. Composed by Joe Pleiman and Jesse Spence, we can still find the trail of the title thanks to another remnant of the Internet: MySpace.

Correction on 13 May at 9:20: corrected a bug in the instrument played by Shavo Odadjian.

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