If you’ve read my story last week about the crackdown on people who pirate at cafÉs, then you’ve got some clue of what happens when big-name copyright holders go after businesses whose patrons are thieving over their WiFi networks. But maybe you’re also wondering: how the hell do copyright holders know when pirating is going on in the first place? Here’s a brief answer.

The story focused on Jack Inglis, owner of Floyd’s Coffee Shop, who ended up censoring his WiFi network after he received a series of emails from his internet provider CenturyLink, telling him that his IP address had been used to steal episodes of The Newsroom, True Blood, and Top Chef, among other shows. The emails told Inglis he could either stop pirating or have his internet access shut off. As it turned out, Inglis wasn’t pirating; his patrons were, and according to Inglis’ emails, his patrons found their copyright-protected content by exploiting a pirating favorite: the torrent.

Now, assuming you’re younger than 50—and given the unseemly, verging-on-criminal readership this publication tends to attract—you probably already know that using a torrent protocol is called “torrenting,” and you might even torrent a pirated movie, album, or TV show from time to time. But if you don't know what the hell I'm talking about don’t sweat, I’ll explain.

Torrents work by dividing files among users. This means, when you’re downloading a torrent—known as “leeching” in the parlance—and, let’s say, half the folks giving you the file (“seeding”) suddenly stop delivering, then you’ll still be able to get the rest of the file from the remaining users.

If that doesn’t make sense, consider this metaphor brought you by a techie friend of mine, whom I’ll refer to only as The Welsh Hobbit Who Drank All My Mead. Image you’re reading a copy of the Mercury (unlikely, I know), and suddenly the paper, by some act of Zeus, just bursts into flames.

After you put your blazing fingers out and bandage your wounds, you decide—against all reason—to pick up another copy because you haven’t finished reading Steve's witty and sagacious TV column, or something equally implausible. In the torrent world, you wouldn't have to start reading again at the top of the column. You could pick up where you left off, right in the middle of a non-sequitur.

Torrent files are divided among users so no information is forgotten—much like Steve’s lurid prose.

More after the jump.

This means regardless of how often individual users stop or start seeding to you, (assuming there’s at least one seeder for you to leech from), you’ll be able to download your TV show or what have you. But because people who torrent act as both seeders and leechers (servers and clients) that, says The Welsh Hobbit Who Drank All My Mead, is how they get caught.

Really popular shows have lots of seeders and leechers who consequently suck up a lot of bandwidth. So to make everything more efficient, torrents prioritize downloading by how physically close seeders and leechers are. That’s because it’s more efficient to leech The Walking Dead from your neighbors down the block than somebody in Zimbabwe.

The only problem is really popular files will then show up like big blaring red “STOP” signs on the networks of cities, and even neighborhoods, where they’re being downloaded. From there, they can be traced back to individual IP addresses—the semi-unique numbers attached to every device connected to the internet. Once the IP is identified, the copyright cops can link the addresses back to individual internet providers. Providers then hector their customers about the copyright-infringing. And that, in a bulbous nutshell, is probably how pirating got traced back to Jack Inglis’ IP address.

So who investigates the pirating? According to Inglis’ emails, they’re not the internet providers, or the copyright holders. They’re companies that specialize in internet snooping.

In Inglis’ case, the copyright investigator was a company called Irdeto. According to Irdeto’s website, the company is, “a world leader in content security, ” with “headquarters” in Amsterdam, Beijing, and San Francisco (yes, the beast has many heads). The ins and out of how this works is a bit of mystery, but an Irdeto spokeswoman, who spoke with the Mercury, was able to confirm her company contracts with copyright holders do things like peruse pirating sites (think The Pirate Bay) and track torrents.

If all this gives you the heebie-jeebies, you’re not alone. Privacy groups have concerns about just how accurate this kind of tracking actually is.

Adding to their woes is a new Copyright Alert System that’s expected to roll out some time early this year. The system will alert home internet subscribers when users are downloading copyright-protected material owned by members of the Motion Picture Association of American and the Recording Industry Association of America.

Penalties for repeat pirating start pretty soft, ranging from a temporary halt in service to receiving educational material encouraging people to buy stuff instead of stealing it—all the way up to penalty payments, and, potentially, a much slower internet connection.

The group overseeing the system says participating telecoms will not shut off the internet of repeat infringers. But while the alert system is a gentler form of copyright enforcement, it will not negate the existing contract you've already signed with your telecom provider—which already gives the company the right to turn off your internet. That means—and I repeat—shiny new alert system aside, you can still have your internet turned off for pirating.

So remember, next time you're sitting at your computer torrenting your favorite show or movie, if you think somebody is watching you, that’s because somebody probably is.