BitTorrent is TiVo for the tech-savvy and the ethically flexible—a way to watch what you want when you want it without having to pay for it. Instead of flipping through the channels or putting on a DVD, you can head for the Web to grab pirated digital copies of whatever movies and television shows you want. As you might expect, downloaders gravitate to popcorn flicks and nerd-friendly TV fare—among the top search phrases on one BitTorrent search engine are Quantum of Solace, Max Payne, Saw V, Heroes, Prison Break, and Fringe. But the No. 1 search query isn't a movie title or the name of a TV show. Rather, it's the name of BitTorrent's top uploader: aXXo.
No matter what metric you choose, aXXo is BitTorrent's biggest name. The editor of the blog TorrentFreak, a 28-year-old from the Netherlands who goes by the nom de Web Ernesto, says that his weekly chart of the 10 most pirated films on BitTorrent is essentially a compilation of aXXo's latest releases. That includes last week's top four: Tropic Thunder, Wall-E, The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian, and Kung Fu Panda. Exactly how popular are aXXo's movies? Ernesto says that the most popular aXXo titles get 500,000 to 1 million downloads per week. Eric Garland, the CEO of download-tracking firm BigChampagne, says that on a recent, randomly selected day, a remarkable 33.5 percent of the movies downloaded on BitTorrent were aXXo torrents. (The next closest competitor, FXG, is responsible for a mere 8.9 percent of movie downloads.) To judge by the fawning comments on the torrent aggregator Mininova—"i dont know what to do without you axxo," "Tks aXXo! I wish you were my father!," "axxo you are a god"—the Web is teeming with satisfied customers. That god theme is common. Last year, TorrentFreak published an aXXo prayer that begins, "Our Ripper, who art on Mininova / aXXo be thy name."
BitTorrent, as Paul Boutin explained in a 2004 Slate piece, is the smartest file-sharing mechanism yet conceived by man. Downloading something from a single source can be slow and unreliable. BitTorrent speeds things up by grabbing pieces of the file—aka torrent—from lots of different sources. The cleverest thing about the BitTorrent protocol, though, is its sharing scheme. As you're downloading, your computer simultaneously uploads the chunks of the file you've already received to others who still need them. The more popular the file, the more people share it, and the sooner your download will finish.
While simple peer-to-peer programs like Napster enabled music piracy to take off in the bandwidth-challenged 1990s and early 2000s, it was BitTorrent's rise five or so years later that allowed Web-based movie piracy to become widespread. (While BitTorrent can be used for all manner of legal file-sharing, it's made its name and reputation as a means for copyright infringement.) But even as it became possible to snare a massive video file in a matter of hours, the world of online movie filching remained treacherous. After waiting a few torturous hours for your file to download, you might be greeted by a piece of malware, a password-protected file, or a copy of Iron Man that's been shot on a camcorder by a guy with the d.t.'s.
When it's hard to know what files you can trust, downloaders gravitate to known commodities. Enter aXXo. Starting in 2005, someone with that handle began posting movie files on a message board called Darkside_RG. In the three years since, aXXo has uploaded more than 600 torrents to the Darkside board as well as more-popular torrent sites like Mininova and the Pirate Bay, all of them easy to spot on account of the word aXXo in the filename.
In the fly-by-night BitTorrent universe, aXXo quickly became a trusted brand name. For one thing, aXXo movies are always crisp DVD rips—files harvested from a digital copy of the movie rather than a shaky camcorder—and are often posted online weeks before the movies are released on video. They're never bundled with malware or protected with passwords; all you have to do is press play as soon as the download is complete. Finally, the files are a predictable size: right around 700 megabytes, the amount of data that fits on a single CD-R. That makes it easy to burn an aXXo movie to CD for archiving purposes or for watching on a compatible DVD player.