Caveat MPAA

Meet BitTorrent, the file-sharing network that makes trading movies a breeze.

George Lucas is legendary for bringing digital technology into the movies, but his next release may drive fans to digital piracy instead. The first three Star Wars movies are scheduled to come out on DVD this September after years of delays, but the releases will include only Lucas’ modified 1997 versions of his trilogy. The originals’ miniature model spaceships have been replaced with computer simulations, and several key scenes have been altered. Lucas, who claims the updates more closely match his vision, is adamant that fans won’t get their hands on the previous takes. His executive producer told USA Today, “The original versions technically don’t exist.”

Too late: Fans are already passing around copies of them on BitTorrent, a fast-growing file-sharing network that makes it possible to swap huge, multigigabyte files over less-than-lightning fast Internet connections. 

The problem with file sharing is that most computers on the Net have ample download capacity but much slower upload speeds. If you try to download a file from my computer, my DSL connection only lets me upload it at 128 kilobits per second—not much faster than a dial-up line. You might have a 1 megabit line to your house, but a measly 128K is the most you’ll get from me. BitTorrent solves that problem by finding other computers that also host the same file. By downloading, say, one-tenth of the file from 10 computers at the same time, BitTorrent puts your download capacity to full use. In fact, the more popular a file is, the faster it downloads because there are more computers with copies sharing the load. Other peer-to-peer networks like KaZaA have added this multiple-source capability, but BitTorrent seems the most efficient and aggressive at optimizing the collective bandwidth of its user population.

As a result, a BitTorrent user can sometimes download a DVD’s worth of data (4.7 gigabytes per side) in hours, rather than days. And it’s easy to use, even if you don’t know how it works. Once you’ve downloaded and installed the BitTorrent software on your computer, you can ignore it. Instead, you use your browser to find and click on Web links to “torrents,” or files available for sharing. Presto, up pops BitTorrent’s progress bar, and your download begins. Behind the scenes, your computer simultaneously shares your downloaded file sections with others who want them. (To learn more about how it works, read this FAQ, which will also explain why your first few downloads might be slow.)

The software is the invention of Bram Cohen, a 28-year-old programmer who lives in Seattle. Cohen first released BitTorrent three years ago, but its popularity has recently hit critical mass. Estimates of its user base reach into the low millions. Wired has nominated Cohen for software designer of the year. The New York Times ran a lengthy profile of him this month, reporting that BitTorrent accounts for one-tenth of the traffic on the Internet2 high-speed research network. Users are sharing thousands of movies, TV shows, Japanese anime, and entire software packages through torrent links on Web pages or through search engines such as Torrent Search. For tech workers, it’s often the fastest way to suck down the latest version of Linux so they can upgrade a bug-bitten database server this afternoon, instead of overnight.

Much of the stuff being shared is free of copyright restrictions, but many of the movie and TV titles at sites like SuprNova.org are obviously pirated copies. Cohen has been adamant all along that he didn’t build the system to Napster-ize the movie industry. In fact, he’s refused to add privacy protections that could keep users from being traced by, say, Hollywood lawyers. He rebuffed me when I sought his help locating a Star Wars torrent: “I don’t pirate using BitTorrent,” he said. Just what the heck is this thing for, then? He replied: “Etree was my target audience.”

Etree is a sort of stoner superstation for live concert recordings of the Grateful Dead, John Mayer, and other artists who actively encourage their fans to record live shows and share the bootlegs (for noncommercial purposes, of course). Unlike tiny MP3 singles, these are multihour recordings, often in high-definition audio formats. The files run to several gigabytes in size, but with BitTorrent fans don’t need fast servers or a fat Internet line to share them. In effect, BitTorrent was first intended as a 21st-century upgrade for the Dead’s taper community, which dates back to the late ‘60s and has a well-understood ethic: Amateur live recordings should be duplicated and shared freely, but the band’s studio albums should not. Cohen says he’s not a Deadhead; he just thought it was an interesting project.

Of course, most of his users aren’t so straight-laced on copyright issues. Star Wars purists told that their movies “don’t exist” mocked Lucas by posting a ripped copy of a rare LaserDisc version. That may seem like justice served, but what about when September’s retouched DVD release shows up as a free download as well? ”It amazes me that sites like Suprnova continue to stay up,” Cohen told the Times, “because it would be so easy to sue them.”

When Lucas’ lawyers come to wipe out the rebel alliance of Star Wars fans—and they will—let’s hope they don’t try the usual tactic of nuking the network to do it. Ditto for the Motion Picture Association of America, which has already sent a few infringement notices to BitTorrent users and has mumbled vague threats about prosecution. BitTorrent isn’t just another file-sharing network. Cohen’s design serves to speed up the Internet, making DVD-sized downloads possible. There are lots of uses for that, and for once we can say it with a straight face: Most of them are legal.