BitTorrent gears up for online distribution of large files
Bram Cohen arrives in San Francisco's Mission District, his hair disheveled, his face stubbled with a day's growth of beard and his black BitTorrent T-shirt proclaiming him for what he is -- the poster boy for a popular and disruptive Internet file-swapping technology.
Time was, guys like this would be found hunched over a computer keyboard in a distant Baltic republic, working anonymously for some offshore corporation.
But now that the Supreme Court has clarified the do's and don'ts of file-sharing, the creator of BitTorrent -- which allows video and other large files to be quickly downloaded -- has no reason to hide. Indeed, Cohen, 29, recently relocated from Seattle to San Francisco, and he and his chief operating officer are making the rounds on Sand Hill Road looking for venture capital for their new company, BitTorrent. They've forged a partnership with paid-search provider Ask Jeeves, and recently the duo flew to Burbank for high-level talks with the Motion Picture Association of America.
BitTorrent already has struck deals with video game publishers to distribute games with its technology.
Cohen's bid to commercialize BitTorrent is a measure of how far the entertainment industry has come since the late 1990s, when Napster introduced millions of people to the power of peer-to-peer technology for downloading songs -- and mobilized scores of lawyers to shut it down.
The recording industry continues its legal campaign to crush the once-wildly popular Australian-based Kazaa file-sharing service. But the studios are now moving to embrace BitTorrent technology -- which gracefully and cheaply distributes giant files -- even as they sue those who use it to trade bootlegged movies, TV shows or video games.
``We have no aversion to peer-to-peer technology. For us, it is in some respects kind of a promising delivery method,'' said Darcy Antonellis, senior vice president of worldwide anti-piracy for Warner Bros. Studios. ``We obviously have issues with its illegal uses, but to the extent that the use of the technology can be legitimized, we're all for it.''
It helps that Cohen never cast himself as an anarchist who bragged that his technology would vanquish the old entertainment industry. He has gone out of his way to castigate those who use BitTorrent for piracy.
The trick, of course, is converting the 40 million or so people Cohen says have downloaded BitTorrent's free software into paying customers.
Over a lunch of veggie burritos and nachos, Cohen and BitTorrent's 28-year-old chief operating officer, Ashwin Navin, talk about their plans for turning a garage operation dependent on donations and T-shirt sales into a Hollywood player.
Any examination of BitTorrent's potential needs to start with an understanding of how it differs from other file-swapping technologies. BitTorrent breaks giant files into tiny bits and spreads the distribution load among dozens or hundreds of computer users. It's built on the notion of cooperative distribution -- to get pieces of the file you lack, you must offer up chunks in exchange.
This approach turns typical online distribution on its head: the more popular the file, the faster the download times. The inverse is also true: It took 72 hours to download Bram Cohen's September 2003 lecture at Stanford University.
BitTorrent dramatically improves the economics of the Internet as a broadcast medium.