Tuesday, September 28, 2004

Give and Ye Shall Receive 

I just saw this on IMDB's Studio Briefing:

MPAA Chafes at Bit(Torrent)
A new technology called BitTorrent, which can download a pirated feature film in DVD quality in less time than it takes to watch, is posing a new threat to movie studios. According to Mercury News, the technology, which requires several "owners" of a particular film to "share" individual parts of it with others, is particularly tough for the studios to battle since the sharing network shuts down after the film is downloaded. The BitTorrent software was created by Bram Cohen of Seattle, who receives no money from sales of pirated films but does welcome "donations" from visitors to his website. However, that may not insulate him from a lawsuit by the MPAA. John G. Malcolm, director of worldwide anti-piracy for the Motion Picture Association of America, told Mercury News: "BitTorrent and others who are complicit in copyright theft should take little comfort from their temporary celebrity status."

The level of asshattery is unbelievable. I have no idea what the MPAA thinks they're doing, but shame on the IMDB and Mercury News for letting themselves be spoon fed propaganda like that. This article frames BitTorrent as a movie-stealing tool and insinuates that Bram Cohen is asking for donations from movie pirates.

In reality, what Bram Cohen has done is come up with a way to make file distribution much cheaper and more efficient by making better use of bandwidth. In conventional downloading, a server sits on the internet, and each person who asks for a file is sent an entire copy from the server. As more people ask for files, the server has to blindly send more and more complete copies of the file, making it slower and slower (and in the extreme, bringing down the server).

Cohen's observation is that as users download the file, they have more and more of the file, and yet their upstream bandwidth is sitting there idle. Why not use some of that upstream bandwidth to send the parts of the file that users have to other users? Then the central server doesn't have to send out so many copies of the file in order to serve everyone. The main site has some great charts to illustrate this idea. This winds up drastically reducing the central server's bandwidth usage, yet everyone still gets their file. And since everyone is getting the file from many sources simultaneously, they get the file faster. In fact, as more people download the file, everyone's download gets faster and not slower. All they have to do is contribute a small amount to the distribution. What Bram Cohen has done is create a miracle--faster, more available downloads for the users, using less bandwidth for the distributor--simply by reorganizing poorly utilized resources.

Of course this sort of thing is probably going to piss someone off. I'm just surprised it's the MPAA. There is no doubt that BitTorrent is used to pirate movies, but it's not well-suited to illegal activity. For one thing, you might have noticed in the sentence above that it relies on a central server to coordinate the network. That is the key blunder that brought Napster down. What is distributed by the central server is entirely up to the person who runs the server, so if there are illegal files being downloaded from your BitTorrent server, it's a piece of cake to find you, and it's a piece of cake to prove that you put them there. People who set up piracy torrents are probably relying on the relative obscurity of BitTorrent. The MPAA might be aiming this PR push at those people, but threatening Bram Cohen is unconscionable.

This is not some guy setting up an offshore shell corporation or operating out of contested territory like other P2P software providers. Nor is it some anonymous author trying to cause mischief. The program isn't designed to make it hard to track down its users. If he wants a donation, it's because using BitTorrent can save a company thousands of dollars in bandwidth costs when they release a big file. For example, it has become commonplace for game companies to release the hotly demanded (and gigantic) demos for their games as torrents. In fact, I got the recent Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War demo in this way, sustaining a download rate near my connection's top transfer speed, and without having to wait a single second for the download to start. The MPAA should be thanking this guy for inventing something that can make their future movie download services cheap and convenient to their customers (and then only asking for voluntary donations), not threatening to sue him.

well, as in most cases, there are many other sides to the story. first off, bram cohen's innovation is indeed a stellar one, but it was released to a user base who primarily would use it to download intellectual property illegally. most of the people i know who use bit torrent are piraters of software, music, and movies; despite the many legal uses this technology can provide.

the mpaa are a bunch of asshats as you so succinctly put it. however, if you do give a criminal an easier tool to use, you are still aiding a criminal activity, regardless of whatever your original intentions are. this is a very loose and subjective argument though, seeing as how pretty much anything can possibly be construed as a tool to aid in crimes, yet i bet it will be stance the mpaa will take up.

whatever your take, it all boils down to the mpaa seeing themselves as victims, just like the riaa did. the solution?

abolish all organizations with acronyms that end with double a's in their name.

except for triple a. they rock.
Hey Dante, at school I know several people who use BitTorrent and none of them are pirates. Come to think of it, none of my friends are pirates, either. So, I think you have some subjectivity in there, skewing your perspective on what the user base really is.
obviously i have no control over what users of bit torrent do with it, but that is just what i know. all of the software my friends have illegally accquired has been through bit torrent, as well as increasingly sizeable chunks of their music catalogues as well.

i didn't state that *all* users of bit torrent use it for illicit purposes, but a decent amount of people do. therefore, even though the technology was not originally designed to make criminal activity easier, it is unfortunatelly one of the results of its development.

You are echoing the plaintiff's arguments in the (in)famous Sony Betamax case (http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/B/htmlB/betamaxcase/betamaxcase.htm).

Reading between the lines a bit, we see that although Sony created a technology that had a perfectly legal use, Hollywood objected because it could also be used for illegal purposes as well. This argument was rightly rejected by the Supreme Court.

And so much the better for Hollywood, as goes the traditional telling of the story, since they were able to gain an enormous gain in revenue from selling tapes of their movies.

BitTorrent is directly analagous. Were Hollywood not so intent on clinging to their old revenue model, they would be able to look at leveraging new technologies and creating new revenue models.

Inertia, devil you know, etc. and all that, though.

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