BitTorrent: Buy, Rent, or Steal?

The Internet is going to become the dominant means of quickly distributing video content - but only with more consumer-friendly services

Big BitTorrent news in the offing: The peer-to-peer file distribution service's site is down at the moment, and when it returns, it'll apparently offer The BitTorrent Entertainment Network, which--in partnership with Warner Bros., 20th Century Fox, Paramount, and MGM--will offer official, entirely legit movies and TV shows.

According to an Associated Press story, TV shows will sell for US$1.99 apiece--same as on iTunes--and movies will rent for US$3.99 (new stuff) and US$2.99 (old stuff). Everything's copy-protected using Microsoft DRM and will only play in Windows Media Player 11; movie rentals will expire 30 days after you buy them or 24 hours after you start watching. (I haven't seen any definitive word on whether you'll be able to transfer video to other devices, but if so, it'll presumably only be to ones that support Microsoft DRM--for which read "almost everything but the iPod.")

BitTorrent's P2P protocol has always done an impressive job of getting files from one place to another, in part because it really gets them from multiple places to another, intelligently patching together a seamless whole from disparate parts stored on PCs across its network. That approach will stay for this new commercial download service, which in theory may make for zippier downloads than with iTunes and other competitors. And these authorized movies and TV shows should be more dependably good-looking than the pirated content that people have been swapping via BitTorrent since it arrived on the scene in 2001.

Of course, the pirated content that people have acquired via Torrents has always been free and free of restrictions; these new authorized downloads won't be. This is, as far as I can think, the first time that a major file-transfer service used for illegitimate content swapping will also be used for downloads sanctioned by big copyright owners. (The original Napster announced plans to institute copy controls but died before it could institute them; Kazaa can find and download copy-protected content, but sure has never emerged as a major force in above-board content distribution.)

With BitTorrent about to become a conduit for both copy-protected-and-official content and some of the same items in unprotected-and-questionable form, it could be an interesting test of an old notion in the digital download wars: that folks who download pirated media for free would genially pay if the same content were easily available in higher-quality, affordable, legitimate form. BitTorrent is apparently saying that it thinks a third of BitTorrent users are willing to do so. I'm guessing that might be optimistic, but we'll see.

Also yet to be seen: whether the BitTorrent Entertainment Network will be slicker, less geeky, and more reliably reliable than BitTorrent in its traditional form. You'd kind of think it would need to be to be a compelling option for renting Superman Returns for $3.99. And you also have to wonder if a more corporate, commercial BitTorrent might be a turnoff for its current users.

The most interesting thing about the BitTorrent Entertainment Network may be...the fact that it isn't very interesting. Except for the pipe it happens to use, it sounds a lot like most of the other legit movie and TV download services out there, and it sounds more restrictive than some.

Me, I remain convinced that the the Internet is going to become the dominant means of distribution for video content far faster than most of us would have guessed just a few years ago. But it'll only happen if we see more services that make sense for consumers--by which I mean ones that give them plenty of flexibility in how, when, and where they do their consuming of entertainment. The BitTorrent Entertainment Network doesn't sound like a step forward in any of these areas.

More to come once I've had a chance to shell out some dough and download a movie or two...

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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