Just over a year ago, a hacker penetrated the corporate servers at Valve, the game company behind the popular first-person shooter Half-Life. He came away with a beta version of Half-Life 2. "We heard about it," says 23-year-old Frank, a well-connected media pirate. "Everyone thought it would get bootlegged in Europe." Instead, the hacker gave the source code to Frank - it turned out that he was a friend of a friend - so that Frank could give Half-Life 2 to the world. "I was like, 'Let's do this thing, yo!'" he says. "I put it on Anathema. After that, it was all over."
Anathema is a so-called topsite, one of 30 or so underground, highly secretive servers where nearly all of the unlicensed music, movies, and videogames available on the Internet originate. Outside of a pirate elite and the Feds who track them, few know that topsites exist. Even fewer can log in.
Within minutes of appearing on Anathema, Half-Life 2 spread. One file became 30 files became 3,000 files became 300,000 files as Valve stood helplessly by watching its big Christmas blockbuster turn into a lump of coal. The damage was irreversible - the horse was out of the barn, the county, and the state. The original Half-Life has sold more than 10 million games and expansion packs since its late 1998 release. Half-Life 2's official release finally happened in November, after almost a year of reprogramming.
When Frank (who, like all the pirates interviewed for this article, is identified by a pseudonym) posted the Half-Life 2 code to Anathema, he tapped an international network of people dedicated to propagating stolen files as widely and quickly as possible.