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BitTorrent vs. MPAA

The thirty year old programmer Bram Cohen, created the application BitTorrent two years after the dot.com crash. He created it in a small apartment in San Francisco at his dining room table. He was not funded in any way, and at the time he created BitTorrent he was unemployed and spent all the money he had on bills and essentials, eventually paying for everything with credit cards until they maxed out. Even though he was in no way wealthy, this project was never about money. His friends would ask, “Why don’t you just get a job?” Bram Cohen wouldn’t listen; he was focused on the task at hand. Bram knows many different programming languages. He is fluent in Python and Java, and knowledgeable in SQL and C and C++. What has become of BitTorrent is now out of Bram’s control. However, the original intent was to use BitTorrent as a free speech tool. BitTorrent gives you the same freedom to publish, previously enjoyed by only a select few with special equipment and lots of money. ("Freedom of the press is limited to those who own one" -- journalist A.J. Liebling.)


BitTorrent works differently from the traditional method of downloading where each computer downloads directly off of one server that contains the entire file. It’s even different from peer-to-peer file sharing methods. You download a .torrent file from a torrent website and open it in the application. It then begins searching for any computer that is sharing that file. BitTorrent offloads a part of the file tracking to a central server called a tracker. The tracker locates all of the “seeds”, which are computers that are running the software and have that file uploading. The tracker eventually finds a number of different seeds and connects you directly to each one. This group is known as a “swarm”. You download the file off of everyone in the swarm in different pieces. So even if the user is still downloading the file it will upload however much of it that it already has. Once you have the entire file you begin seeding it to other users for as long as you have the application running. BitTorrent uses a tit-for-tat system that ranks you by how many files you’re sharing. The more files you seed, the faster downloads you can achieve.


This greatly decentralizes the way that music, movies, and software are distributed over the internet. Technically, everyone in the world who has a connection to the web could have the exact same media library.


Although the BitTorrent software was originally created for the distribution of Linux operating systems, it is now most notably associated with the piracy of movies and TV shows.  Since it breaks files into “chunks,” which are then available for simultaneous download, its’ design is optimal for downloading large files (also note: this method can be both efficient and annoying, as the speed of the download greatly depends on the number of seeds who are hosting the file.)  Bram Cohen has warned in the past that using his software to exchange illegal material is a “dumb idea” since his software doesn’t attempt to hide the identities of its’ users.  Regardless of the notoriety, BitTorrent has been placed within the infamous P2P category. Its’ technology remains a useful tool for the spread of open source applications.


Legal disputes have surrounded BitTorrent since it’s inception. Organizations such as the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), and the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), have been looking for a way to stop the illegal distribution of files. Lawsuits cannot be applied directly to BitTorrent as all it is doing is providing a more efficient way to download files. It doesn’t even have a search function. Popular BitTorrent search sites have had certain amounts of legal distress however. Suprnova.org, easily one of the most popular search sites, felt pressure to end it’s reign prematurely, and shut the main portion of the site down in December of ’04. Other sites soon followed with the MPAA and RIAA biting at their heels. Things may change for BitTorrent though. Currently, forces are at work to make the actual system illegal as opposed to just the search sites.  Many people are waiting with baited breath to see what the outcome will be.


As far as the websites go, there have been many others affected by the MPAA suing sites in that support BitTorrents. Some are Shuntv.net, Zonatracker.com, Btefnet.net, Scificlassics.net, Cddvdheaven.co.uk, and Bragginrights.biz. These sites were sued for having illegal copies of television shows. Since December the MPAA has lawsuits against one hundred sites with BitTorrent. They have also worked with law enforcement authorities to track down the sites that host eDonkey and BitTorrent. Criminal and possibly civil action against those running indexing servers will come on top of the hundreds of suits the MPAA recently began filing against individuals accused of pirating movies. There have been search warrants issued for ten people who have been criminally accused of running indexing services that included copies of the new Star Wars movie.


Bram Cohen has never identified himself as a “rebel” as many software designers of this sort tend to do.  In fact, he has set up office and is currently (defending himself in court) attempting to ally himself with the entertainment industry.  Interestingly enough, many of his attempts have been turned down not because of the legality issues with copy write infringement, but because of the growing competition BitTorrent has within the P2P field; being passed in popularity this year by eDonkey.










Article Authors:
Greg Wonder
Sean Collinson
Lee Batchelor
Nick Parker
Seth Burgess

Posted 2005-12-21 22:21:55 by Max Langdon
Comments on this story... (toggle all)

BitTorrent vs MPAA [Kristina Younan, 2005-12-08 13:04:18]

I definitely give a lot of props to Bram Cohen who was so dedicated to build such an application. BitTorrent is growing way to rapidly for anyone to stop it. I feel as if there is no way that the MPAA can do anything about it, Bram Cohen was the creator of it, but the users are just as guilty as Bram. If the MPAA and the RIAA is going to sue Bram , why not sue the users then? Even if the sites do get shut down, too many files are already out in the public and they will keep being multiplied through everyone. Its just like a disease, if you stop the first person who had it, that doesn’t mean you’ll kill the whole disease.


Punishing generosity [Jon Ippolito, 2005-12-16 06:51:20]

Kris, you point to the fact that Cohen is more likely to be sued than the actual abusers of his system. I find it interesting that the MPAA et al. choose to sue those who share rather than those who hoard.

The RIAA and MPAA have a policy of suing distributors rather than moochers. Many p2p applications allow end users to choose whether to share what they have downloaded or not. Those who do benefit the network immensely; those who don't are simply sponging off the good will of others.

Of course, I'm speaking of benefit and good will within the filesharing community's own ethics; the MPAA, on the other hand, considers "good actors" within the network to be its worst foes, so it attacks them rather than bothering with the freeloaders.

Two points worth noting:

* bitTorrent deliberately prevents users from opting out of sharing, thus enforcing altruism within its own network (and distributing the liability across all users).

* The MPAA's punishment of altruism within p2p networks seems to echo its own ethics of hoarding instead of sharing--not the best PR move in my book.

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