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BitTorrent's Gone Legit, But Still Faces Obstacles

Once upon a time, piracy was piracy and protocol was protocol. Then, thanks to either The Princess Bride's Wesley/Dread Pirate Roberts or Thepiratebay.org's movie downloading stash, piracy and protocol became inexorably linked and very difficult to sort out.

After the demise, rebirth, and seeming irrelevancy of Napster, another company became a lightning rod for controversy, perhaps due to the fact that its peer-to-peer (P2P) protocols could be used to swap files.

The company, BitTorrent, Inc., was created in 2004 by Bram Cohen and Ashwin Navin, about three-and-a-half years after Cohen created and released the first BitTorrent P2P protocol.

"When you're downloading something you're also uploading something," said company president Navin recently, in an interview sure to warm the hearts of trial lawyers. "Users are aware of that when they read the user agreement when they download the BitTorrent (software) client."

The fact that the company creates the protocol but doesn't house a database of "torrents"—the files the protocol uses to tell torrent trackers what each client has available—hasn't stopped the media companies from pursuing legal action against hundreds of BitTorrent users.

Even when BitTorrent, Inc., acquired another application, the lightweight ĀµTorrent that has a small enough footprint to put P2P on mobile devices, late last year, media companies weren't buying its application for in-the-wild distribution.

"P2P has content-distribution capabilities," said Mark Cuban, chairman of HDNet, adding that "mass distribution of content isn't one of them. I think P2P is great for corporate and controlled apps, but not for open distribution."

These days, however, many argue that making P2P a legitimate distribution model is a way for the large ISPs to pare back bandwidth demands, with the thought being that heavily trafficked files would put less stress on the primary ISP backbones and instead be swapped closer to the nodes in a particular metropolitan or compressed geographic footprint.

BitTorrent, Inc. moved in early 2007 to legitimize the business on a three-pronged strategy. First, it struck a deal with the MPAA; second, it has released software that allows content delivery networks (CDNs) to overlay their traditional networks with P2P protocols; third, the company has been working on the ability to stream torrents, which has been difficult due to the non-contiguous download benefits of P2P that don't require all the file information to be downloaded in sequence.

In addition, the company recently announced what it calls BitTorrent DNA, which is geared toward efficient streaming networks and boasts Brightcove as its first customer. According to Navin, most companies spend more than 20 cents an hour to stream video over the internet. Since few can generate 20 cents an hour in advertising revenue, he argues, the Torrent DNA could reduce their reliance on linear transport and, hence, their cost of bandwidth.

"We clearly have a role in the future of video," said Cohen in an interview earlier this year, before the launch of its paid content portion of bittorrent.com. "As far as competing with the piracy experience, the better consumer experience we provide, the less people will feel the need to rely on piracy. To do that, we’ll be providing an extensive and valuable catalog of content at a good price. In the future, we’ll expand into free, ad-supported content as an integral part of our site. We’re also going to give independent publishers a platform to distribute, promote, and ultimately sell their own content as part of that experience."

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