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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 movies.
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 video segment.
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 programmer 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 software works.
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 their PC.
Sites like Slovenia-based Suprnova (http://www.suprnova.org) offer up thousands of different torrents without storing the shows themselves.
Suprnova is a treasure trove of movies, television shows, and pirated games and software. Funded by advertising, it is run by a teen-age programmer 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 said.
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.
- "File-sharing network thrives beneath radar," Adam Pasick, Reuters UK http://www.reuters.co.uk/home.jhtml, November 3, 2004, http://www.reuters.co.uk/newsArticle.jhtml?type=internetNews&storyID=6705733§ion=news