BitTorrent to open digital-media store

P2P site to sell music, video and games, using the tech that made it notorious as a tool for pirates.Video: BitTorrent co-founder on shift
Written by Greg Sandoval, Contributor
If the notorious file-sharing software BitTorrent was once the class bully, a version set to debut Monday is more like the teacher's pet.

The 45-employee company that calls itself BitTorrent is planning to use its software to launch a download site, called the BitTorrent Entertainment Network, that will distribute more than 5,000 titles from digital movies, TV shows, games and other media.

In the battle for the nascent online video market, BitTorrent could be a competitor, thanks to its existing reputation for speedy file distribution. It also has an established user base that the company says numbers 135 million.

That's the kind of muscle that could immediately pit the company against some of the sector's heavyweights, including YouTube, Brightcove and Joost, a new peer-to-peer service started by the founders of Skype and Kazaa. Joost recently partnered with some big entertainment companies, such as Viacom.

The BitTorrent store's opening marks a triumph for the San Francisco-based company. Despite the software's reputation for helping people illegally share millions of unauthorized video files, the company's managers have convinced studios such as 20th Century Fox, Lions Gate and Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios that it comes to Hollywood with a laurel branch in its hands.

But the deal did not come cheaply. To sell entertainment companies on the idea that they could profit from the file-sharing system, BitTorrent executives had to make some important concessions, such as wrapping songs and movies on the site in a digital rights management (DRM) system.

Among the many challenges the new store faces are proving the technology can bring movies to users faster than the clunky distribution methods now available and not alienating the millions who have grown accustomed to using BitTorrent to snatch files off the Web with virtually no DRM and at no cost.

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Video: BitTorrent's latest foray
Co-founder discusses company's shift to legal content.

"There is always a percentage of people that don't want anything to do with a technology once they perceive it to be a corporate thing," said Zephyr, a 25-year-old San Francisco resident who declined to give his last name. He has used BitTorrent for more than five years to download books, music and videos. "There's a large group of people out there that like getting things for free, and they will probably go someplace else for file sharing."

But BitTorrent leaders have labored long and hard for mainstream acceptance. Last May, the company announced a landmark distribution deal with Warner Bros. Entertainment Group. The agreement, one of the first studio deals ever for a file-sharing company, won BitTorrent a measure of respectability and became the foundation for signing similar deals.

Besides, too much shouldn't be made of BitTorrent's use of DRM, said Ashwin Navin, the company's president. This is only the first stage in BitTorrent's evolution, he said, adding that he senses a shift in Hollywood's thinking about DRM.

"Our partners require DRM protection for their titles," Navin said. "They are being cautious with a new distribution model. As the demand goes up, our partners will probably explore DRM-free options."

The new online store smoothes out many rough spots typically found in downloading movies off the Web. Perhaps, most importantly, users can rent or buy movies from some of Hollywood's biggest studios and download them without worrying about viruses or corrupted files, Navin said.

When the site opens its doors on Monday, some of the feature films that will be offered are Superman Returns, Mission: Impossible III and An Inconvenient Truth. Among the available TV shows are 24 and Chappelle's Show.

Movies will only be available for rental. Older titles will cost $2.99, while new releases will go for $3.99. Customers can take up to a month to watch a film. Once they start watching a title, they have up 24 hours to finish it. TV shows and music videos are "download to own" and cost $1.99 each.

The need for speed
Almost as important as price is speed. One of the main reasons why adoption of digital movie downloads has lagged has been the slow download times. A digital film file represents an enormous amount of information that can easily clog available bandwidth. The process can force film fans to wait hours before heating up the popcorn.

It is here that BitTorrent is expected to excel.

Developed in 2001, BitTorrent's open-source distribution system was designed to help transfer large files over the Internet. BitTorrent allows a single file to be broken into small fragments that are distributed among computers. People then share pieces of the content with one another.

As opposed to some other systems that slow when a lot of people try to download the same piece of content, BitTorrent's file sharing only speeds up, according to Navin.

"A lot of game consoles are releasing movies for download or games for download, and that will be a terrible user experience unless they use BitTorrent," Navin said. "When everyone wants the same file at once, people are talking about 12-hour download times for a movie."

So how fast can BitTorrent deliver the same movie?

"Depending on the connection speed," Navin said, "how about we say faster than a pizza delivery?"

BitTorrent also can help content companies transmit big files for "significantly less money on a cost-per-gig basis" than other content delivery companies, said Eric Patterson, BitTorrent's vice president of consumer services.

But if the company's technology works best with popular content, BitTorrent has to prove that it will also work well for fans of obscure films or TV shows that don't get downloaded as often.

"One of the most nontechnical challenges will be managing expectations," said Mike McGuire, an analyst with Gartner. "They can't over-promise. They have to make customers understand whatever limitations there are. We know how hard it is to do downloads. The questions have been: How do you get consumers in the store, crack their wallet, and get them to come back? The answer has always been: It has to be easy to pay for and download."

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