CBC follows Norway’s BitTorrent lead

My friend Steve O’Hear alerted me to a post on the Last100 blog (part of the excellent Read/Write Web network) written by Guinevere Orvis, an interactive producer with the CBC — that’s Canada’s national broadcaster, for any of my non-Canadian readers — about how the network came to distribute one of its shows using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer network. Guinevere says that the idea started with a post on BoingBoing about Norway’s state broadcaster doing the same thing with a show.

While it might have been nice to hear that the CBC got the idea from reading about it on my Globe blog (sorry, I couldn’t resist), it’s still nice to know that our national broadcaster is open to new ideas. And from the sounds of Norway’s experience, it should be one that they consider repeating. According to Eirik Solheim, who works for the Norwegian broadcaster, the show has been downloaded more than 90,000 times and the network has been “saving huge on bandwidth cost.”

That last part is important to note: BitTorrent may be known for piracy, but it is fundamentally a distribution method, plain and simple (ISPs argue that it is cheap because it piggybacks on their networks and sticks them with the bill, but that’s a topic for another day). Here’s hoping that the CBC decides to continue this experiment, and congratulations to Guinevere for helping them come to grips with the issues involved and spurring them on. Her full post on all the details is well worth a read.

Further reading:

Michael Geist has written about the CBC’s move, and so has TorrentFreak, and CNET. Mike Masnick at Techdirt has taken note of it as well.

Why Comcast is right to jam BitTorrent

The outrage continues over Comcast’s jamming of BitTorrent and other traffic on its cable network in the U.S. The company has tried to clarify its position by saying that it doesn’t block BitTorrent traffic, it merely “delays” it (and apparently some other traffic as well). As James Robertson and Cynthia Brumfield have pointed out, part of the problem is that Comcast isn’t being very forthcoming about what it is doing at all — in part because the company says it is afraid that providing too much detail will allow BitTorrent users to find a way around the network “shaping.”

I know that the popular position is to slam Comcast for telling users what to do with their network bandwidth, and I know my instinct is the same whenever my ISP talks about BitTorrent or bandwidth caps. But like most ISPs — and cellular carriers — Comcast has a “terms of service” agreement that allows it to restrict what users do with their accounts, so that whatever they’re doing doesn’t impact on others using the network. That’s a fact of life.

The big issue for ISPs is that p2p apps like Skype, Joost and BitTorrent can consume a huge amount of bandwidth. According to some estimates, 10 BitTorrent users on a network node can double the delays that other users experience — and as much as 60 per cent of the traffic on some networks is BitTorrent-related. That may not be a problem for BitTorrent users, but it could severely impact those using other applications on the same network.

Obviously it would be better if ISPs like Comcast or Rogers built out their networks to provide more bandwidth, and it would also be better if there were more competition in the Internet access business. But it’s hard to blame Comcast or anyone else for trying to make sure all of their customers get the service they deserve. Now if only the company would come out and say so.

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.

Toronto’s OpenCola lives on in Swarmcast

(cross-posted from my Globe and Mail blog)

Given the kind of publicity that Bram Cohen and BitTorrent have recently gotten by announcing deals with Warner Brothers and other movie studios and content owners, it’s worth noting that a Toronto-based company got there long before BitTorrent — at least in terms of the technology, if not the public awareness.

OpenCola was a technology startup with a peer-to-peer (P2P) application of the same name that was similar to Kazaa and Limewire, but years before either of those would become household names. On Thursday, the successor to OpenCola announced a $5-million financing deal with two Japanese venture-capital funds.

In the late 1990s, a young programmer named Justin Chapweske had developed a technology he called Swarmcast that was designed for sending large files over the Internet. It did this by chopping each file up into tiny bits, distributing those bits to many different hosts, and then allowing users to download those bits from any location — at which point the software would reassemble them into the original file. In other words, exactly the same process used by BitTorrent, except that Swarmcast was developed in 1999 and BitTorrent didn’t appear until 2002.

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Justin wound up joining Toronto-based OpenCola — whose founders included Cory Doctorow, one of the editors behind BoingBoing. Unfortunately, that coincided with a downturn in technology markets, and OpenCola did not survive. The technology was sold to Waterloo, Ont.-based Open Text Corp. Justin Chapweske later started another company called Onion Networks and eventually reacquired the rights to the Swarmcast technology.

So why is BitTorrent a relatively well-known name and Swarmcast is not? Because the two took different approaches to commercializing their software. Bram Cohen chose the “open source” route and released the code for his software so that anyone could use or distribute it (so long as they didn’t charge money for it or claim it as their own). It quickly became the technology of choice for downloading everything from cracked software and illegally copied movies to pornography, although it was also used for distributing large files such as the various flavours of the Linux operating system. And that in turn got the attention of content owners.

Swarmcast, meanwhile, decided to focus on working behind the scenes with companies that would have an interest in distributing large amounts of content over the Internet — including distributing digital films to movie theatres. The company also helps power MLB.com, the major-league baseball service, which distributes huge quantities of video and audio to baseball fans. Not as sexy as doing deals with Hollywood movie studios, but not bad either.

BitTorrent deal amounts to very little

Like most press releases, the one about the deal between the Hollywood movie studios and BitTorrent is full of bombast and hype about this historic arrangement and how it will stop piracy, etc. etc. Hosannas and high-fives all round. Like the earlier announcement about BitTorrent’s deal with Warner Brothers, however, there is a lot left unsaid in the release, since to say it would remove a lot of the thunder.

The press release goes into lots of detail about how BitTorrent, which started up in 2001, has become “the most efficient means of distributing large, high-quality files on the Internet” and “accounts for as much as 40 percent of all worldwide Internet traffic.” Then it says that BitTorrent “continues to work with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) to remove copyright infringing content.”

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In the New York Times story, it says that “BitTorrent’s partners will upload authorized versions of their TV shows and films onto the network.” Sounds great, doesn’t it? Except for the fact that there is no BitTorrent “network.” The agreement to remove copyright-infringing content from search results applied only to bittorrent.com, which no one who uses BitTorrent ever goes to. It has nothing to do with all the other BitTorrent sites and “networks” out there that account for all that traffic.

The confusion is between the company — which autistic programmer Bram Cohen founded, although Om reports that he is to be replaced as part of a rumoured financing deal — and the BitTorrent protocol, which is the technology. The technology Bram developed is open source, which is why there are dozens of BitTorrent download programs available, with more appearing every day.

Functionally speaking, there is no BitTorrent “network” — it is a fully distributed peer-to-peer system in which “trackers” broadcast the details about a file, and “seeders” distribute pieces of it. Bram Cohen can’t do anything about any of those files, even if he wanted to. The movie studios can use it to distribute their films, which will undoubtedly be all clogged up with DRM, but if they want to compete with piracy it’s going to take a bit more than a press release. Tony Hung over at Deep Jive Interests says the news could actually be good for pirates.