Sharing files in bits and pieces

BitTorrent: Software that breaks up big items like movies into tiny downloadable segments is taking the world of peer-to-peer swapping by storm.

September 02, 2004|By Doug Bedell | Doug Bedell,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Earlier this year, as filmmaker Michael Moore was putting the final touches on Fahrenheit 9/11, he unwittingly thrust himself into the debate over Internet file-trading ethics and the relatively unknown, free program BitTorrent.

In an interview, Moore compared file-sharing of copyrighted movies to friends lending one another purchased DVDs.

"I don't agree with copyright laws," he said, "and I don't have a problem with people downloading the movie and sharing it ... as long as they're not trying to make a profit off my labor."

That was all his political enemies at needed to hear. In hopes of denting Moore's box office profits, the Web site's manager decided to help people download free copies.

But rather than simply posting one huge pirated version of the movie for everyone to fight over,'s backers used the power of BitTorrent to distribute tens of thousands of pieces of Fahrenheits in a faster, more efficient manner. All they had to do was link to a tiny torrent file.

BitTorrent is like the old Napster with one major twist. Napster and its peer-to-peer, or P2P, cousins connect users directly with each other to receive entire files. That makes downloading full-length, digitized movies a long, arduous task for both the downloader and the person offering the file, especially when a lot of people are trying to glom the same copy simultaneously.

BitTorrent software breaks up large files into pieces, then allows users to "swarm" - exchanging small portions of files with one another - until everyone has a complete set.

Download speeds depend on two factors. First, like the computer bulletin board systems of the 1980s, the software keeps track of how much you contribute to hosting files for the group. The more you share, the faster your downloads.

Second, the more people trading a file, the more options for obtaining its pieces. So, unlike the old Napster, popularity doesn't bog down the process - it gives it a shot of adrenaline.

But it's not instantaneous. A Sopranos episode may take six hours or more to download, depending on network traffic. A crude "screener" copy of Fahrenheit recently required 36 hours on a moderately fast DSL connection.

BitTorrent was developed by Washington programmer Bram Cohen, 29, and presented to the world at hacker conventions more than three years ago. The program is now gaining widespread attention as corporations and individuals warm to its speed and simplicity. Fans of the open-source Linux operating system, for example, use BitTorrent to distribute perfect copies of the latest versions.

When Downhill Battle, a nonprofit music activist group, disseminated an entire album as part of its February "Grey Tuesday" protest over music censorship, organizers used BitTorrent as part of an effort to move more than a million digital tracks to sympathizers in 24 hours.

"BitTorrent lets you have a file on a Web site that lets people click on a link and download in a peer-to-peer way," said Downhill Battle co-founder Nicholas Reville. "It's an amazing tool for people or small organizations running their own Web sites. Most can't just host the large files of video or bundled music files. They can't afford the hosting costs that it would take."

Cohen said that using his creation to exchange copyrighted files is not smart. It takes digging for the music industry and the Motion Picture Association of America to find who is offering illegal uploads within Kazaa, eDonkey and similar networks. But with BitTorrent, the links to files for each download must be posted for everyone to see on Web sites.

By some measurements, the use of BitTorrent has eclipsed that of Kazaa, the most popular peer-to-peer program for music file-sharing. The firm CacheLogic said its six-month analysis shows that BitTorrent accounts for 53 percent of all European network peer-to-peer traffic. In June, CacheLogic reported, an average of 8 million users were online at any given time sharing a petabyte (10 million gigabytes) of data.

Mark Mulligan, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, said he doubts the CacheLogic figures reflect a shift from music- to movie-swapping, but that it show that BitTorrent users spend more time downloading much larger files.

"Even among the most regular Internet users, music file-sharing is ... more than twice as popular as movie/TV show file-sharing," Mulligan said.

Meanwhile, inventive users of BitTorrent are finding legal ways to use it.

"I wouldn't be surprised in the next six months to see bloggers start producing video narratives with it," said Reville. "I mean, they're writing about their lives, so why not put up a 600-megabyte BitTorrent file with video of the whole thing? With BitTorrent, that's suddenly very feasible."

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