Torrential reign

If you're an aspiring artist then there's a good chance that you don't have a penny to your name because you spent it all on your Gibson Les Paul guitar, booze and fast women, leaving nothing left for the important stuff - like actually getting your music out to the public. This used to mean that you'd need the services of a record company to pay for your distribution. But things have changed.

By hosting your own content on the Web, all of those expensive middlemen and company executives can be cut out of the loop, and you can distribute your music on a global scale, directly to your fans. But even this revolutionary step means that you have to pay for server space and bandwidth. While a lot cheaper than a CD distributor, it can still be an expensive option, particularly if you're successful - the more people who want to download your music, the more bandwidth you're going to need to shell out on. Resulting in fewer Les Pauls, less booze and probably slower women.

Bits and pieces

However, there's an alternative, in the form of Bram Cohen's BitTorrent - a file distribution protocol. This eliminates the need for online storage space and bandwidth, and gives you an army of middlemen who'll willingly do your distribution for you, free of charge. Who are these middlemen? The fans.

Briefly, a BitTorrent works by splitting a large file into smaller parts and distributing them non-sequentially to anybody who has requested the file (the leechers). The leecher who is downloading also starts uploading to other peers immediately after down­loading their first part. The protocol requests the rarest parts of the file to avoid bottlenecks, and will attempt to download from the most efficient peer in the swarm (group of peers) - see Figure 1.

As a result, the bandwidth used by the seed is dramatically decreased and the download times actually improve with more people trying to download the file. As a result, BitTorrent has become a popular tool for software and video piracy. But as long as you stick to distributing your own material, you'll be on the right side of the law.

How to

Firstly, you need a BitTorrent client to manage all of the Torrent files that you download, and to enable you to create .torrent files for upload. I recommend Azureus because of its user-friendly interface and large feature set - (http://azureus.sourceforge.net).

Once installed, you're ready to start downloading torrents and creating them. To download a torrent, you need to find a tracker. This essentially links you back to the seed, or the leechers that currently have the file (or partial file). BitTorrent doesn't have a search facility, so you'll need to do your own Web search for torrents. You'll find torrent search engines at www.bittorrent.com, or www.torrenttyphoon.com - the latter has a good Firefox extension. There are many sites that host torrents, but some are more legal than others. You're on safe ground with sites like www.legaltorrents.com and www.commontunes.org. In fact, CommonTunes allows you to sell your music distributed via BitTorrent.

At these sites, the trackers are listed and it's just a matter of clicking on the torrent file you want, which will then open in your BitTorrent client (Azureus) and start downloading. It's a good idea to test this before you start uploading, just to make sure everything's set up properly.

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Creating a torrent is a little more complicated, but Azureus has the tool you need. To do this press <Ctrl>-N. Follow the prompts and enter either the file name or directory that you want to put in the torrent - see Figure 2. You must list an http:// or dht:// (Dynamic Hash Table) to announce your tracker. This should correspond to the Web server you'll be uploading to. For this example, I'm using www.mininova.org so the following tracker hosts are suitable (dht:// is unsupported by this service). http://mongo56.org:3535/announce
http://bittorrent-support.com:2710/announce
http://tracker.prq.to/announce

You can select your piece length (ie, the size of the partial files it will be divided into) but the defaults are generally fine. Tick the checkbox to begin seeding when it is created - see Figure 3.

Now you'll need to list your torrent on a Web site. You can do this legally anywhere, so long as you're sharing material that isn't protected by copyright, but legal sites like legaltorrents.com require you to e-mail the administrators so they can check your content. For greater exposure, you'll receive the most traffic from Web sites that are renowned for hosting copyrighted material, like www.mininova.org and www.piratebay.org.

Mininova provides a simple upload Web interface. Once it's uploaded, navigate to the page on the Web server where your torrent is posted, click the link, and when the BitTorrent client starts, be sure to select the same file/directory that you used in Azureus when you created the torrent. The client should check the files and verify that they are complete, and then connect to the tracker and begin seeding.

Through port

To make sure your seed is recognised by the tracker, you have to have port forwarding set up in the NAT settings on your router (if you're on a network). This will be your BitTorrent port (most likely 6881, but could be up to 6889 depending on what you set in installation). You may also need to adjust your command line parameters by creating a new Azureus shortcut and adding your Web-visible IP address. This can be found out by visiting www.myipaddress.com. The command line parameter should look like this "C:\Program Files\Azureus\Azureus.exe" "--ip XXX.XXX.XXX.XXX" (where the Xs are the numbers of your IP address). This process applies only if you're seeding and running a tracker on the same machine, and you have a NAT (network address translator) setup like an ADSL router.

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Making movies

If you want to distribute video as well as music, then Popcast is a method for easily broadcasting on your own TV channel. The Popcast system technically parallels BitTorrent and RSS (really simple syndication) implementations but the technical comparison ends there. The Popcast system extends the technical platform with a Popcast-specific Macromedia Flash API, private tracker network and custom publishing tools to simplify channel production and channel viewing. You'll find the player on the February 2006 Edition's Cover Disc.

Popcast has 260 Channels, 522 Shows, with 14574 Subscribers. Though not a lot are worth watching just yet (Click here to view a screenshot).