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Updated: 2016-05-12T20:06:53+02:00


A Useful BitTorrent Analogy


The first successful commercial photo copier, the Xerox 914. BitTorrent has been around for over a decade now. And yet, when mentioned in the media, it's pretty much universally associated with piracy and illegal file sharing. Just the other day, I saw a journalist write proudly: "No, I don't have a Torrent program and I'm not downloading one." A journalist! Someone who is supposed to be an expert at retrieving information and sharing it! BitTorrent is not scary, and more so it actually generates the majority of traffic on the internet. In the 21st century it should be a tool that sits on your digital utility belt, not something you wouldn't touch with a 10 foot pole. So here's a simple analogy to help understand it. · • · Imagine a budget-starved teacher needs to hand out notes for class, but can only afford one copy. The document is 10 pages long, and there are 10 students who each need a complete copy. The teacher could just give the notes to one student, and ask him to make all the copies, but that would only shift the burden, leaving him to pay for all 100 pages. Instead, the teacher has an idea. She hands page 1 to student #1, page 2 to student #2, and so on, and tells each student to make 10 copies of their single page. The next week, the students can distribute them amongst themselves before class, and everyone gets a complete set. Nobody has to pay for more than their own 10 pages. Everyone's happy: the teacher gets to share her knowledge cheaply, and the students don't mind paying for their own copies. In the middle of the term, a new student joins. She could borrow someone else's big pile of notes, and copy the entire stack of paper, but that would mean she would have to pay for it all, and she's on a budget too. So instead, she just goes around and asks each student to make a single copy of the pages they were assigned previously. The next week, she collects all the pages, and assembles a complete copy without even bothering the teacher. She gets a free pass to catch up with the class, but the other students don't mind chipping in. That's because she immediately joins the game and can make copies too. The teacher can now hand out one page extra each week, or decide to give one student a free pass. If more students join, it works better and better. Now instead, imagine that students join and leave the class every single day, and the teacher isn't quite so organized. She just puts her big stack of notes on the desk, and tells everyone they can take any page they want, as long as they promise to immediately make copies for anyone who asks. The students are all friendly, and make sure to keep each other in the loop about which pages everyone has. Both the originals and the copies are copied as many times as needed. · • · That's BitTorrent in a nutshell. For any given class—i.e. a file that people are interested in—a cloud of students forms—i.e. the peers in the so called peer-to-peer network. The peers compare notes, see which pieces they are missing, and swap copies with each other. Eventually, the teacher (a.k.a. the seeder) can leave, taking her original copy with her, and the system will keep working. As long as there is at least one copy of every page in the room, the students can make more, and the document as a whole will live on. This is pretty much the only way you can effectively distribute a massive archive of sensitive data to thousands or millions of people, without incurring massive bills. You can't use free or ad-supported services, as the material would get taken down instantly due to its sensitive nature. And you can't host it directly, as that would leave a trail pointing back to you. With BitTorrent, your initial group of 'students' can be sworn to secrecy. After the initial round of copying, the teacher sneaks out, and the students just pin a notice on the bulletin board: "We have copies of The Forbidden Secrets by Dr. X. Come see us." Nobody claims to know who Dr. X is. Ideas and information flow freely, without censorship. [...]

The Reality of Illegal TV Downloads


As you may know, I'm a sci-fi nerd, hence I've been pretty excited about the reimagined Battlestar Galactica series coming to a close. So, me and my fellow connoisseur of the awesome, Greg, put together a quick survey on Google Docs to get predictions about the end of the show. The internets filled it in. The Battlestar nerdery was all in good fun, but more interestingly, I also asked a question about how people watch the show: via live broadcast, recorded or downloaded? Legally or illegally? Depending on your point of view, these results are either entirely obvious, or quite surprising. So far, 313 people filled in the survey, which was advertised only through blogs and Twitter for two days: Given the circumstances, the people who answered this fit two descriptions. One, they are fan enough to actually fill out a survey about a show on TV. Two, they read blogs, talk on Twitter, hang out in forums, i.e. they know and use the web intimately. So, SciFi channel SyFy, NBC Universal, all big name media: do you see that big green chunk of people who download your shows illegally? These are merely potential customers that you haven't reached yet. When you look at your ratings and bemoan the dwindling numbers, think of that 30%. Sure, these people are probably not getting you any ad money, but you can profit off them indirectly. Tech savvy people are the backbone of your nerdy fandom, and they add value to your precious intellectual property. Who do you think helped all those girlfriends, husbands, parents or siblings get over the silly name 'Battlestar Galactica' and actually watch the show? Who wrote all that stuff on the Battlestar wiki in their spare time, providing an anchor for online discussions and activity, keeping your brand active? Yup that's right, the nerds with their computers. And seriously, those 30% aren't all anarchistic hacker types who despise copyright. A lot of them are just people who want to enjoy the show they love in the way that is convenient for them. An illegal high-definition torrent released a couple hours after the TV broadcast is indeed pretty darn convenient. Lucky for you, you are in the unique position of offering something even better. Just stop treating the live broadcast as being sacred: it is merely one showing after the content has been made available. Instead, provide your own episode downloads at the same time as the TV broadcast. Make it attractive with additional extras for your hungry audience, like director commentary or deleted scenes. By all means offer a free ad-supported plan like Hulu for those who don't mind having their shows and brains invaded by rabid commercialism. But please, open up the modestly priced option of high quality, ad-free, DRM-free downloads. The technology is there. If you do it right, you will go from making no money off of these people, to making some money off of them. Trust me, this group is only getting bigger by the day. Of course, it won't be easy: your inaction has caused an entire ecosystem of illegal distribution to spring up across IRC, Usenet, private trackers and the web. These people are organised and very good at what they do. Your competition is tough. In this light, it's a bit silly to try and push region-restricted, delayed and limited online releases onto people. You're only providing a product worse than what's already available. You're clinging to your old ways, and only succeeding because a lot of this stuff is darn new and only the kids are doing it anyway. Except, even the grown up folks around me are starting to figure it out. Some run Boxee on their cracked Apple TV (a plug and play process). Some have a dedicated torrent box at home that they log into (screen sharing built into their Mac). They've got phones in their pockets that can network literally anywhere, and look, someone can sell them an app to torrent their shows for a buck or two. See how this whole digital economy stuff works? Do you honestly think you can control all that with increasingly restrictive DRM backe[...]