Pat Pilcher: BitTorrent goes legit

Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It was inevitable; the creators of the BitTorrent file sharing protocol going legit. Trouble is that many have tried and all have failed. Napster? Kazaa, Limewire, they were huge names and yet they're now part of the trail of digital wreckage strewn out behind the file-sharing debate as it continues to grind on. Question is will BitTorrent be any different?

Bit Torrent's creators have adopted the different and yet clever tactic of launching a version of the torrent file client called "BitTorrent Bundle". The really smart part is that the Bundle uses a new format that requires downloaders to complete a task before they can start downloading. In effect this could see content creators asking for cash before the file can be accessed, or they could also seek your email address to delivered targeted newsletters and adverts in a spam-for-content model.

Like the existing BitTorrent protocol, the bundle formatted version is an incredibly efficient way to shuffle large amounts of data around the net. The key difference is that in the actual file is inaccessible until the downloader completes whatever the task is that the content creator requires.

This move by BitTorrent Inc. opens up some interesting opportunities and conundrums. One of the biggest challenges facing Hollywood, the music industry and TV networks has been making money out of something that is effectively free and whose perceived value is pretty low. Peer-to-peer file sharing technologies such as BitTorrent have copped a lot of negative flak in the media and in the minds of many are irretrievably linked to piracy.

This is unfortunate as peer-to-peer technologies offer some pretty unique advantages over other technologies.

The streaming model that has been embraced by TV networks worldwide is seen as solving the issue of who owns the content. Once it is streamed content is effectively gone (unless you've discovered the huge number of utilities for downloading streamed video). The big problem with the streaming model is that it requires colossal amounts of servers and bandwidth, neither of which is cheap.

Peer-to-peer on the other hand see's chunks of data being shared amongst file sharers which means that the up-front costs of distributing content is hugely reduced for content creators. Trouble is that up until now no one could work out a viable way of making money using peer-to-peer. The multi-billion question is however now that a payment mechanism has been baked into the BitTorrent Bundle format, will TV and movie studios, recording labels etc. embrace it? Could the Bundle format spark a quiet revolution in online content?

The next big question to in this writer's mind is how secure is the bundle format? It is almost guaranteed that as soon as BitTorrent Inc. launch it, people will be hard at work discovering how to exploit it. Even if they don't manage to break the bundle format, the metaphorical file-sharing elephant in the corner of the room that isn't being discussed is the continued existence of free content using existing peer-to-peer technologies.

How many people will make the leap to legit content when a free alternative is already available? The answer to this probably lies in how much companies are going to charge for bundle downloads and other annoyances such digital rights management (DRM) and region blocking.

Either way, the potential is massive - Some estimates have BitTorrent already accounting for just over 3 per cent of total internet bandwidth, so even if a small fraction initially adopt the bundle format, the actual numbers could be huge. If I were a traditional broadcaster, I'd be watching this one very closely.

- NZ Herald

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