What effect has BitTorrent had on the media industry?


Bram Cohen is the creator of BitTorrent which is a very successful ‘peer to peer’ program, it is the most common software used by internet users looking to swap files, both legal and illegal. It is estimated that 50% of all upstream internet traffic involves torrent files. BitTorrent was first shown to the world back in 2002 when it was used to distribute Linux software online, soon after this sites were being set up to distribute illegal files. Supranova is one of many sites setup that allow you to download media files illegally.

How BitTorrent Works

A torrent file is distributed to a user through from a website. The BitTorrent protocol breaks the file down into smaller fragments. Peers download missing fragments from each other and upload those that they already have to peers that request them. The protocol is able to connect to the peer with the best network connection for the fragments being requested. Sharing by each peer begins when the first complete segment is downloaded and can then begin to be uploaded if another peer requests it. This scheme is useful for sharing large files. With BitTorrent high demand can increase throughput as more bandwidth and additional ‘seeds’ of the file become available to the group.

Negative effects of BitTorrent

BitTorrent is having a negative impact on the movie industry. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) has taken a majority of the sites that allow you to download through BitTorrent to court. The MPAA is trying to cripple BitTorrent and its peers by suing the people who are hosting the websites. Supranova a hosting website was shutdown famously but soon after other mirror sites appeared almost instantaneously. However there were reports that 90% of targeted sites using the BitTorrent protocol for illegal distribution of movies had been closed down.

The growing online availability of television programmes, music and films is the latest threat to the entertainment industry. You can watch a programme which has just been broadcast in the United States almost a day later illegally in England through BitTorrent, many months before viewers in England will see it on Television. The value of a programme could go down in the eyes of broadcasters if a series is readily available on the internet. People would rather download a film for free than the alternative which would be to pay an overpriced cinema ticket. In Hong Kong piracy has had a huge effect on the films industry ‘In 1997, Hong Kong-made films generated HK$700 million in revenues. By 2004, this had almost halved to HK$380 million, a decline that has been largely attributed to piracy.’ But just how much of this loss is attributable to BitTorrent is unknown because the figure includes all forms of ‘piracy’. The MPAA have also released a statement claiming that they have lost $3.4 billion through piracy, much of which they attributed to BitTorrent.

What is being done to combat this negative effect?

Many Television stations have launched on-demand services to combat the effect that BitTorrent has had on their popular programs. In 2007 BBC launched i-player, it enables users to download programmes after their first transmission and will leave them with 30 days to watch them. The lifetime of downloads is controlled by a digital rights managements system (DRM) supplied by Microsoft. It has been very successful with more than 42 million programmes being downloaded in its first three months. However as the i-player is only available to users within the United Kingdom and the files can only be stored for 30 days it is highly likely that users will still be downloading the files illegally through BitTorrent.

Positive effects of BitTorrent

Valve, the developers of Half Life 2, have hired Bram Cohen to develop a BitTorrent protocol so that they can distribute their games online. Valve commented that ‘The distributed publishing model embedded in BitTorrent is exactly the kind of thing media companies need to build on for their own systems’. Another games developer Blizzard has also chosen to distribute their latest game through BitTorrent.

BitTorrent has signed an agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America to collaborate on stopping Internet piracy. BitTorrent have agreed to remove all links directing users to pirated content owned by the seven MPAA member companies ‘we are pleased to work with the film industry to remove unauthorised content from BitTorrent.com’s search engine’ Cohen Said. This deal shows that the MPAA are willing to negotiate with BitTorrent which could mean good things for the future like that seen in the games industry with Valve.

CNN’s show, Crossfire, was broadcast to 867,000 people who watched it through the Television set, immediately after it was aired, fans ripped it and put it online as a torrent. Within a day at least 4,000 servers were hosting it. One host reported having, at any given time, more than a hundred peers swapping and downloading the file. Another 2.3 million people streamed it from iFilm.com over the next few weeks. Three times as many people saw Crossfire online compared to CNN itself.

BitTorrent allows the ‘small guy’ to distribute files from his own computer. All you need is an account with an Internet Service Provider that allows you to store a minimum of 100mb and you can distribute files. An example of this is Gary Lerhaupt: he thought more people should see the show Outfoxed which appears on Fox News. The film producers allowed him to place the show on his own site, within two months nearly 1,500 people downloaded it. ‘Lerhaupt’s site needed to serve up only 5 gigs. After that, the peers took over and hosted it themselves. His bill for that bandwidth?’

Situation at the present moment

Apart from the gaming industry and an $8.75 million deal from a venture capital firm, BitTorrent does not have many legal uses. There are very few companies setup that actually use the BitTorrent protocol thus far. An example of a company that does use the protocol is CommonMedia which has just recently added e-commerce capabilities. So that when you download a file you have to pay for it. The problem with this site is that the media you can download is of poor quality. For example, one file downloaded was filmed through a mobile phone.


Legal programs such as the BBC i-player should slow down the illegal downloading of files through BitTorrent. It has been seen that closing down sites is not very effective as new ones appear almost instantaneously. It would seem that broadcasters instead of fighting the technology have adopted similar technology to BitTorrent to reduce its effect. It remains to be seen how and if Hollywood can combat the effect of movies being downloaded illegally. The MPAA do admit that they ‘believe the internet will be a powerful tool for the legitimate use of content’. Its too robust to stamp out with lawsuits, but too effective not to adopt for commercial use.

If Hollywood were to adopt the BitTorrent technology or something similar you can imagine being able to download films through different media outlets online, which would mean a decrease in the price of films.

The reason: digital copies can be made for next to nothing, the current practice is too expensive as are the costs involved in producing a DVD.

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