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Inside the community that calls themselves ‘the scene’

13 September 2017

If you’ve ever illegally downloaded a film, television program or video game, there’s a good chance you’ll have ended up with something from ‘the scene’. Intentionally vague and mysterious, the scene is a group of people who make a sport out getting the latest episode of Game of Thrones online, cracking the new Call of Duty, or getting the best quality encode of Baby Driver; kind of like fox-hunting but, arguably, more ethical.

The scene is made up of numerous groups, all in competition with each other. Some focus mainly on television, some on music, some on games, as each require different skill-sets and resources. In television, SVA and AVS are two of the major groups currently operating, having won every race in two of the most popular categories for the recent season of Game of Thrones. SVA focuses on x264 encodes: encoding in the x264 codec, a blending of the words coder and decoder, referring to a computer program used for the streaming of digital content, that provides better quality at smaller file sizes than older codecs. AVS focuses on x264 720p encodes: using the same codec but at higher resolutions, resulting in better picture quality on larger screens, however this comes with the consequence of larger file-sizes.

If you’ve ever illegally downloaded anything, these details can often be seen in the names, the rules of the scene dictating that the resolution (480p, 720p, 1080p) should follow the name of the series and its season and episode number. Following the definition, the way in which the program was sourced, the codec used, and group responsible for releasing it are to be specified. And these are just the rules for television. Different media and even different codecs can have their own naming conventions.

However, the naming conventions are the least of it as for each kind of media, and for each different codec, there is a different, lengthy and complicated ‘ruleset’. Scenerules.org documents all of these rules, as well as past rulesets. Like The Ten Commandments, these rules detail the codecs that must be used, their resolution, the framerate, as well as audio standards, for all uploads. At the end of the ruleset, the document is signed, or conspicuously not signed, by various release groups. The current set of rules for x264 720p television is signed by 72 different groups and three groups are listed as having refused to sign. One of these, FLEET, are notorious in the scene for shit uploads. So much so that one of their scene’s pre-eminent groups, AVS, called them out in the text file that customarily accompanies an upload. This resulted in the ‘nuking’ of FLEET’s release, whereby AVS publicly declared FLEET’s upload to be subpar, and provided a proper upload.

The scene is serious business and for good reason. Although many people compete for the fun of it, various groups also offer access to their ‘topsite’ a server where their releases are hosted and available to download. These topsites often provide greater privacy than the public trackers used by The Pirate Bay and other sites, as well as providing new material quicker, and often having obscurities that would be difficult to find elsewhere. However, release groups are not charities and this service is not provided for free. Commonly access is granted to members of a release group, friendly release groups, and paying subscribers. As a result, the scene hates public file-sharing websites as their material is disseminated with no benefit to them, unless you consider notoriety from lawbreaking a benefit.

But this relationship is not one-sided, with many at the bottom of the file-sharing hierarchy – so-called ‘leeches’ – annoyed at the scene at one time or another, generally following a change to the ruleset. One significant example being last year’s move away from .mp4 being used for video files to the less accepted, newer, .mkv format. And similar complaints were made in 2012 following the move from .avi to the .mp4 format. However, considering the secretive and rather elitist nature of the scene, there is unlikely to be any love lost.

The scene is a murky, secretive world – there are very few who will speak about their experiences in a release group. After several attempts to contact people in the scene, or people who knew people in the scene, I gained very few responses. I only received one answer that explained, in a quite hostile manner, that the scene was secret for a good reason and that this article was counter to those ideals. Despite attempts to explain that I was writing for a student publication, not the New York Times, and any extra notoriety would therefore be minimal, I still gained no ground. A recurring theme from my research, however, suggested the scene like an incredibly nerdy speakeasy, guarded, secretive and incredibly elitist.