LONDON (Reuters) -
A file-sharing program called BitTorrent has become a behemoth,
devouring more than a third of the Internet's bandwidth, and
Hollywood's copyright cops are taking notice.
For those who know where to look, there's a wealth of content, both
legal -- such as hip-hop from the Beastie Boys and video game promos
-- and illicit, including a wide range of TV shows, computer games and
Average users are taking advantage of the software's ability to
cheaply spread files around the Internet. For example, when comedian
Jon Stewart made an incendiary appearance on CNN's political talk show
"Crossfire," thousands used BitTorrent to share the much-discussed
Even as lawsuits from music companies have driven people away from
peer-to-peer programs like KaZaa, BitTorrent has thus far avoided the
ire of groups such as the Motion Picture Association of America. But
as BitTorrent's popularity grows, the service could become a target
for copyright lawsuits.
According to British Web analysis firm CacheLogic, BitTorrent accounts
for an astounding 35 percent of all the traffic on the Internet --
more than all other peer-to-peer programs combined -- and dwarfs
mainstream traffic like Web pages.
"I don't think Hollywood is willing to let it slide, but whether
they're able to (stop it) is another matter," Bram Cohen, the
programer who created BitTorrent, told Reuters.
John Malcolm, director of worldwide anti-piracy operations for the
MPAA, said that his group is well aware of the vast amounts of
copyrighted material being traded via BitTorrent.
"It's a very efficient delivery system for large files, and it's being
used and abused by a hell of a lot of people," he told Reuters. "We're
studying our options, as we do with all new technologies which are
abused by people to engage in theft."
FOR GOOD OR EVIL
BitTorrent, which is available for free on http://bittorrent.com, can
be used to distribute legitimate content and to enable copyright
infringement on a massive scale. The key is to understand how the
Let's say you want to download a copy of this week's episode of
"Desperate Housewives." Rather than downloading the actual digital
file that contains the show, instead you would download a small file
called a "torrent" onto your computer.
When you open that file on your computer, BitTorrent searches for
other users that have downloaded the same "torrent."
BitTorrent's "file-swarming" software breaks the original digital file
into fragments, then those fragments are shared between all of the
users that have downloaded the "torrent." Then the software stitches
together those fragments into a single file that a users can view on
Sites like Slovenia-based Suprnova ( http://www.suprnova.org ) offer
up thousands of different torrents without storing the shows
Suprnova is a treasure trove of movies, television shows, and pirated
games and software. Funded by advertising, it is run by a teen-age
programer who goes only by the name Sloncek, who did not respond to an
e-mailed interview request.
Enabling users to share copyrighted material illicitly may put
Suprnova and its users on shaky legal ground.
"They're doing something flagrantly illegal, but getting away with it
because they're offshore," said Cohen. He is not eager to get into a
battle about how his creation is used. "To me, it's all bits," he
But Cohen has warned that BitTorrent is ill-suited to illegal
activities, a view echoed by John Malcolm of MPAA.
"People who use these systems and think they're anonymous are
mistaken," Malcolm said. Asked if he thought sites like Suprnova were
illegal, he said: "That's still an issue we're studying, that
reasonable minds can disagree on," he said.
Meanwhile, BitTorrent is rapidly emerging as the preferred
means of distributing large amounts of legitimate content such
as versions of the free computer operating system Linux, and
these benign uses may give it some legal protection.
"Almost any software that makes it easy to swap copyrighted files is
ripe for a crackdown. BitTorrent's turn at bat will definitely happen,"
said Harvard University associate law professor Jonathan Zittrain. "At
least under U.S. law, it's a bit more difficult to find the makers
liable as long as the software is capable of being used for innocent
uses, which I think (BitTorrent) surely is."
Among the best legitimate sites for movies and music:
-- Legal Torrents (http://www.legaltorrents.com/), which includes a
wide selection of electronic music. It also has the Wired Magazine
Creative Commons CD, which has songs from artists like the Beastie
Boys who agreed to release some of their songs under a more permissive
copyright that allows free distribution and remixing.
-- Torrentocracy (http://torrentocracy.com/torrents/) has videos of
the U.S. presidential debates and other political materials.
-- File Soup (http://www.filesoup.com) offers open-source software and
freeware, music from artists whose labels don't belong to the
Recording Industry Association of America trade group, and programs
from public television stations like PBS or the BBC.
-- Etree (http://bt.etree.org) is for devotees of "trade-friendly"
bands like Phish and the Dead, who encourage fans to share live
recordings, usually in the form of large files that have been
minimally compressed to maintain sound quality.
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