BitTorrent service is built to fail

Far be it from me to question the motivations of Bram Cohen, the genius behind the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol, who has finally launched (NYT link) the long-awaited (or at least, much discussed) movie download service that BitTorrent has been working on with the major Hollywood studios. It’s possible that he entered into the deal under duress, in order to avoid a blizzard of lawsuits.

prison.jpgBut one thing is pretty clear by reading between the lines — or even just reading the lines themselves — in the New York Times story that is headlining Techmeme right now: the service as it is structured will almost certainly fail, and Bram Cohen knows it. The BitTorrent service will sell downloads of TV shows for $1.99 an episode, but will only rent movies, which expire 30 days after they are bought or 24 hours after someone watches them, thanks to the ever-helpful digital rights management features of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 10.

BitTorrent co-founder and chief operating officer Ashwin Navin effectively admits that this is a dumb idea, and says that (NYT link) the company actually had agreement from the studios to sell movies outright for download, but the prices that the studios wanted to charge didn’t make any sense. “We don’t think the current prices are a smart thing to show any user,” he said. “We want to allocate services with very digestible price points.” Translation: We want to offer something that has a hope in hell of actually working.

Then Bram Cohen says that he thinks the new service will provide a compelling alternative to downloading illegally — but in the very next breath, he says: “We are not happy with the user interface implications” of digital rights management. “It’s an unfortunate thing. We would really like to strip it all away.” And then the real money quote comes right at the end:

“The sad thing is, it’s not about the money,” said Aaron, a 36-year-old San Francisco programmer who regularly uses BitTorrent to download movies illegally. “I’m not interested in renting a movie. I want to own it. I want total portability. I want to give a copy to my brother. Digital convergence is supposed to make things like this easier, but D.R.M. is making them harder.”

Bang. That was the door slamming shut on BitTorrent’s new service — or maybe the bullet in the temple of the studios’ hopes that they can somehow eat their digital cake and have it too.

11 thoughts on “BitTorrent service is built to fail

  1. It’s a complicated game.

    Now he’s a *partner* and not a *pirate*. That matters.

    Except he’s a partner in a sabotaged division.

    But that’s MUCH better than being a defendant in court.

    He can try to get a sane pricing structure from here. Instead of trying to avoid a lawsuit.

    All in all, it’s a good thing. A small step forward beats a large step backward.

  2. I’m not sure I agree. Most people watch most movies once. The recently launched services from Apple, Amazon and Walmart only offer purchasing, not renting, and really aren’t going anywhere. There is a pretty well-understood market for rentals and pay-per-view. There aren’t many movies that are worth owning, especially as a download that is far inferior to a DVD.

  3. Wait – so they expect me to contribute my bandwidth while they charge me with ludicris prices? Wow, simply unbelievable.

    If they’re gonna charge these ridiculous prices, the least they could’ve done is hand down the bandwidth savings.

    The sheer stupidity of the movie/record industry is unbelievable.

    And let me guess – these aren’t HD and won’t come out faster than the pirate versions right?

  4. The shame about DRM is that it makes the legal files different than the pirated movies. BitTorrent works best when lots of people are trying to download the same file, so if the legal files were the same as the pirated ones, they’d download faster because of the higher number of sources. Here was a perfect opportunity for legal users to take advantage of pirates to improve distribution, and the movie companies screwed it up with DRM.

  5. That’s a good point, Jim. The studios could actually have benefited far more from the P2P structure if they had kept the files the same.

    And Anonymous, I think you are right to be outraged at the prices (and it sounds like Bram is too). In effect, the studios are using you and others like you as a distribution system, and charging you full price at the same time.

  6. “‘We are not happy with the user interface implications’ of digital rights management.”

    I think that Cohen’s phrasing of it as “user interface implications” trivializes the real problem. It sounds like marketing spin, suggesting that the problem could be fixed with a lil’ spit n polish to pretty-up the user interface.

    That’s wrong: the “implications” of BT’s DRM’d system run very deep. People hate these systems not because the UI is a little ugly–otherwise no one would have put up with years of hideous open-source BT clients–but because we feel these restrictions emotionally: What do you mean I don’t *own* it? Why can’t I share it with friends? Why can’t I move it to my Mac and then to my iPod?

    Those aren’t just some missing features, those are the basic personal and social behaviors and expectations around buying and using media products.

  7. Thanks for the comment, Allen.

    I think what Bram meant by “user interface” (although I obviously can’t say for sure) is just the overall appeal — or lack of appeal — that such a service with DRM is likely to have for users, as opposed to the technical UI design.

    I would agree with your central point though. In effect, DRM is trying to change the way that people have thought about content for decades, and that is darn near impossible — or at the very least pretty stupid.

  8. As to the files all being different with DRM applied… the DRM must be being applied post-download client-side for the BitTorrent techmology to work, right? (!)

    Interestingly, the iTunes store does (or did at the time of PyMusique) this too, even though they don’t use P2P.

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