an example of the usefulness of bittorrent for entirely legal purposes

I frequently find myself in an unpopular position in the entertainment industry: I believe in network neutrality, I don't believe that piracy is the end of the world as we know it (I particularly don't believe that a download or file shared automatically equals a lost sale*) and I don't believe in crippling the Internet to protect a business model that desperately needs to change.

One of the things that drives me crazy is the belief in Hollywood that bittorrent exists solely for stealing things. Efforts to explain that this is not necessarily true are often met with hands clamped tightly over ears, accompanied by "I CAN'T HEAR YOU LA LA LA."

As an example of the usefulness of bittorrent for entirely legal purposes, I present the following comparitive images:

Screen Shot 2012-05-13 at 10.39.50 AM
Screen Shot 2012-05-13 at 10.39.56 AM

So yesterday, I decided that I'd download Ubuntu and put it in a Virtualbox on my iMac, just to see how the distro is doing these days. As you can see from the images above, if I'd downloaded the iso straight from their server, it was going to take the better part of an hour, so I decided to grab the torrent instead. Turns out it was a good choice, because it was finished in about six minutes.

I was so happy with the speed and performance, I seeded it until I got to a ratio of 3.0, to give back, you know?

Some ISPs are blocking all bittorrent traffic, because bittorrent can be used to share files in a piratical way. Hollywood lobbying groups are trying to pass laws wich would force ISPs to block or degrade bittorrent traffic, too. Personally, I think this is like closing down freeways because a bank robber could use them to get away, which I know is an imperfect comparison, but is the best I can do after a night of not-especially-good sleep.

Anyway, my point with this post is to illustrate that the bittorrent protocol is useful for more than just infringement, so when you hear industry lobbying groups making a lot of noise about piracy, you'll remember that they aren't giving you all the facts.


*Longtime readers may recall that I did not always believe this, but I've, uh … evolved … on the issue.

72 thoughts on “an example of the usefulness of bittorrent for entirely legal purposes”

  1. Good post, Wil. So many folks forget that {insert download mechanism here} is content independent. It can be used for anything.
    As to the “change of heart”… I went through that too. I’ve actively resisted putting copy protection on my software figuring that anyone that would pirate it wouldn’t buy it anyway, hence no lost revenue. Long term, if they like it (how can they help themselves, I say!) they’ll come to me for support and THEN I’ll make a sale. Heck…I’ve even given folks a discounted price at that point since they essentially self-marketed and saved me the hassle of trolling for customers.

  2. Thanks to BitTorrent, I had downloaded LibreOffice for my new awesomesauce Ivy Bridge PC before i even opened the torrent file. The download was that fast. (thank you, BitTorrent and FIOS)

  3. Through using torrents I’ve illegally downloaded and watched loads of things I never would have and in most cases, if I really liked it I went out and bought it. This counts for film, tv & games. Also, I have then gone on to tell my friends how much I enjoyed it. There is no need to download music illegally anymore with free services like spotify and So the music industry can shut up. These big corperations have definately taken more of my money from me downloading things first. I never would have purchased them otherwise.

  4. Call me crazy but Kubuntu 12.04 is exactly what is being shared on my torrent. And Prettylights, came with uTorrent with the express intent of being shared. That’s all.

  5. Wil,
    First off, I am a huge fan, and seeing things like this is the reason why. You actually think and reason when you talk about issues that effect people, and I respect you for that. It is always nice to see someone from the media industry acknowledge that torrents are not all bad. I always use the analogy that torrents are like email. About 80% of all email these days is spam, but you shouldn’t make internet providers start blocking all email and making it illegal just because some people abuse it. Torrents may have been made popular by illegal downloads but they have become something so much more now. Some companies are starting to realize this, Blizzard and other computer game manufacturers have used torrents for downloading and updating their games for a long time.
    I hope your message makes people stop to think about the difference between the technology and the people using it.

  6. Throttling drives WoW players crazy… their patchers are all torrents and it really does impact when there’s a big patch release of several gig. Blocking torrents is just going to piss off legitimate users. Pirates will just find other ways to distribute material. I still remember back on 56.6 modems you could get mp3s straight from websites, then when they all got closed, Limewire, Kazaa, Gnutella et. al. all sprang up, and torrents developed from that.
    I am on the side of making content easily available (and preferably DRM free). I won’t go hunting for a song on bittorrent when I can get a fast, safe and guaranteed download for pennies in itunes. Its about adapting the market. Valve revolutionised how I buy videogames with Steam. Where is the movie industry? Dragging its damn feet and going LALALA NOT LISTENING. Wake up and move with the times, corporations.

  7. I find the “old media” moguls’ arguments against file sharing are rather anti-capitalist and seem, well, monopolistic.
    In the great marketplace, people’s demand will pay for the goods and services that are worth it. They will not pay for those which are sub-par.
    I’ve downloaded music before to see if I’d like it. When I do, I reward the artist by purchasing their work. If I don’t like it, I delete it. QED.
    So, in my book, a download will equal a WON sale while not letting me download will be their LOST sale.

  8. Wil,
    A few years ago, I was taking a SharePoint administration con-ed course at a local college.
    The instructor’s main job was working with the team getting the Toronto District School Board set up with SharePoint for teachers to manage classes, students to store their files, etc.
    Part of the specification was to enable media sharing between schools. If, for instance, one of the schools had a strong Film & Video production department, then the videos they were producing could be shared with all of the schools in the system, so teachers could use them as example, motivator, etc.
    The underlying tech they were going to use to spread out the network load for these potentially gigabyte-sized files was going to be .torrents.
    It was a perfect application of the technology to legal and most especially educational purposes.
    I don’t know how well the overall integration has gone (not in contact with that instructor), but I think this relates very well to the intention and spirit of your post.

  9. I too am one of those users who has used torrents and previous P2P methods to obtains items that I would never otherwise have purchased, I’ll be fair more often it results in a meh moment and stops there.
    However there are those moments where you love what you see, hear, experience that you go out and buy up what you can get.
    I understand the RIAA / Hollywood’s desire to protect their income, the problem is that they target the wrong source for their declining sales.
    For example the iconic enemy of the RIAA was napster, however when napster was operating, contrary to the RIAA’s claims it didnt not diminish their sales. In fact, during the 2 1/2 years that Napster was operating, CD sales increased by over $500 million dollars from what they were in 1998.
    The real reason for the decline in Music and movie sales in reality is a combination in downturns in the eocnomy and people having less expendable income in total, and the addition of a newer entertainment market increasing its market share, and by that I mean Video Games.

  10. interestingly, about 10 minutes ago The Counting Crows just posted to FB that they are offering a special BitTorrent featured content piece, with 4 songs from the new album, expanded liner notes, and wallpapers.
    it is being seeded by 300ish people, and has 491 peers, and I got it in 82 seconds. Its legal, and I bet it works like gangbusters. This follows up on them crowdsourcing design of the album cover about 3 months ago. In the press release for it, Duritz made the comment, “It’s a way to connect with anyone anywhere anytime. It’s the cure for Babel. These are our new radio stations.”

  11. Blizzard games (WoW, SC2, Diablo 3) all distribute their patches via torrent swarms. Ubuntu as you found is a great example (and other linux distros). A lot of large open source software use torrents.
    A fun one is OCRemix. They distribute their massive pool of video game remix music in torrents. SLAY Radio does as well, posting quarterly torrents containing all their new indie music.
    Finally. Want to download all of Wikipedia??
    I’m a software engineer working in game development.

  12. As a video game producer, I have to say, I’ve never used DRM, or been opposed to bit torrent, etc. Even used bit torrent to distributed online clients to great effect. Reduced cost (allowing us to sell product for less) and was ultimately faster for the consumer.
    The reality is, most consumers are treated like they’re criminals by the entertainment industry. If you buy a blue ray or DVD, then you must get out a knife and multi-tool to cut through the multi-layers of anti theft, find that stupid RF strip (sometimes stuck on the little booklet, or even on the disc itself), etc.
    Then you put the disc in, and HOPE that your player is updated with the latest encryption, etc., or the disc might not work at all (even though you paid for it). Assuming it does work, then the next thing that happens is a big giant WARNING telling you how much jail time you’ll get for pirating the damn thing.
    That mentality is heavily jumping over to software, forcing you to keep the master disk in your disc drive (as if you played no other games, or did nothing else with that drive), or refusing to allow you to return games… when did this scam start? If the game sucks, you should be able to return it! And I make the darn things and am saying that.
    Bit torrents CAN be used for stealing stuff. Or for sharing stuff (not always stealing). Truth is, the government needs to stop pandering to Hollywood’s failed business models and update copyright laws. Honestly… I can buy a book, and invite all my friends over for pizza and read the book to them. I can then GIVE that book to someone else, or sell it, even. I can even COPY the book, write passages from it (providing I attribute them), etc. I just can’t sell copies.
    That makes sense. That’s logical. I cannot profit from another’s work unless I have a contract with that person, and they get their cut. Fair. But, the book once bought, does in fact belong to me. Also fair.
    But somehow Hollywood has confused this issue. Recording music off the radio is sometimes illegal, sometimes not, and yet, TECHNICALLY, never illegal. And if it’s not illegal to record off air, why is it illegal to download?
    I don’t like to see artists not get paid, but here’s another question… I’ve bought the Aerosmith Toys in the Attic (my puberty album) uh… let’s see… vinyl, tape, CD, iTunes… that’s FOUR damn times. Honestly guys… it’s the same frickin songs. Can’t at some point I just get credit for buying your music, and get a free copy on the new technology? If you do some kind of remastering, or it’s a new performance, then by god, I’ll buy it. But if it’s the same thing I already have… why am I a criminal if I put the album on the turntable, hook the output to my computer, and digitize it to put it on my iPod? I bought it. It’s mine. I’m just moving it to my chosen listening device. Like taking a book with me into the car (as a passenger, kids, as a passenger).
    Sadly, Congress only works for lobbyists. They’re not interested in making law clear and updated. Just in doing the bidding of those who donate. So, we’ll only be getting new versions of Net Neutrality every year, until they manage to destroy the internet, and further destroy the economy. And people STILL won’t be buying those crappy $20 CDs that only have one good song on them…

  13. I get what you are saying – and as a Director of IT, I definitely know the benefits of Bit Torrent. But the problem isn’t necessarily that you are using it for legitimate means and that should qualify it as having a purpose.
    The problem is there are too many out there who do use it nefariously. I believe it has a place and benefit. I also (as a comparison) believe it is my right to have a handgun or rifle… but that doesn’t stop the illicit usage of those items either… Hard to make your point when the line you stand behind is gray and a mile in width.

  14. I think it’s completely crappy that ISPs can block any traffic. How is it legal for them to decide what I can and can’t download? Very nice analogy too btw.
    On a completely different note, have you seen this website? I can’t decide if the dude is cuckoo for cocoa puffs or super-cool. Anyway, it’s fun to dream about any possibility (however slim) that a real ship could actually be made.

  15. Read the terms of service of your ISP contract (which you signed and agreed to when you signed up for internet service). You didn’t read it originally, NOBODY does. I guarantee you there’s language in there that gives them EXACTLY That legal right.
    Now morally? That’s a whole different story.
    I’ve used torrents for TONS of legal applications. World of Warcraft patches back in the day was the one I came here to mention, and I see it’s already be mentioned. LE SIGH.

  16. … and let’s not even mention those folks who use torrents to download media options that they are COMPLETELY UNABLE TO PURCHASE LEGITIMATELY, due to silly region restriction DRM.

  17. 2 things.
    1. It is awesome that you are geeky enough to download linux distro to install to a virtual machine on your system just to “check out the progress”. Even more awesome you decided it was taking too long, and rather than just go watch or read something while it downloaded, you looked for a speedier solution. You are my personal hero.
    2. Your inner Wesley Crusher was showing just a bit there.

  18. Odds are that your Ubuntu bittorrent probably pulled data down from my server (2G to the internet) and my home PC (250M to the internet). I host all current major releases of Linux on my machines to help the distribution.
    I’m grateful to Hurricane Electric and SureWest for not harassing me for having bittorrent servers.

  19. You made some good points – hollywood reluctant to change – yah – I’ll say. This an industry that sued Sony when they invented the video recorded screaming about the death of the industry. Hollywood is still here and the recorder is gone.
    Also your point about isps that throttle bandwidth for certain ports that use bittorrent. Isp’s auto assume it’s for inappropriate material rather than legit files, which is probably true lol, but is it right? Not so sure. Still when you have a program that’s sucking up as much as a 1/3 of your bandwidth you probably have to take some kind of action.
    BTW Your highway analogy is excellent. Anyway enjoyed the read and the comments. Cheers to all :-)

  20. I recently needed an image for a VM system; I believe it was OpenIndiana. The download via HTTP showed me that yes, Chrome is able to use “day” as a unit of time for how long a download will take.
    I dug out the BitTorrent client (took me a couple of minutes to remember its name) and pulled the image that way. Took a very few minutes instead.
    That’s about a 1000x speed-up.

  21. Hi Wil. Not sure if you will ever see this, but you aren’t alone in your frustrations with the entertainment industry’s attitude to torrenting.
    Have you seen the latest from the Counting Crows? They are offering a torrent download of tracks from their new album. The email they send out if you select to receive them is very much in the same vein as your thinking about torrenting being misunderstood with an additional commentary about the industry not respecting their client base.

  22. Good one, sent it in a mail to myself to add it tonight. I was looking for independent movies. Almost all my music is independent, non-copyright, donate/pay-what-you-want/pay-x-or more and I’m looking for that in movies too. Maybe this is what I’m looking for.

  23. Tjedgar: You make some good points.
    Has anybody really done legitimate research to see how these technolongies have affected the entertainment companies (from a financial perspective)? I mean – geee – The Avengers just made a bajillion dollars and the movie companies keep green-lighting hugely budgeted pictures. I’m under the impression that they’re not exactly hurting. I can’t speak of the music producers, but are they all going broke?
    Let’s prioritize the businesses we’re worrying about. I, for one, would worry more about the health of banks that the damned entertainment industry.

  24. Good post, and good point. Thanks for bringing it up.
    I also like the “close the highway” analogy, regardless of how accurate it may be.
    Normally I tell people that some of the laws we see proposed are similar to holding an auto manufacturer liable for crimes committed in one of their cars. Murderer drove a Ford Fusion to dump the body in a landfill? Sue Ford for ALL THE MONEYS!

  25. Totally agreed Wil. I only have bt installed on account of utterly failing to work out why my new old video camera wasn’t working because the ebay seller hadn’t included the free software that should have been with it. I searched through the manufacturer’s website for ages but could not find it.
    In the end it was far less hassle to download and install bt and grab the torrent. I reckon if they were to stop torrents then loads of legitimate sites with download sections would suddenly find their bandwidth increasing massively and be unable to cope with the amount of extra traffic they would have to support.
    Mind you according to Jimmy Wales isn’t Hollywood going to die soon anyway.

  26. Ubuntu may not be the ideal example, given that the project has sufficient resources to survive even if bittorrent were blocked.
    I’ve been downloading and seeding (legally) free movies from recently and can’t imagine that this site would still be around if bittorrent stopped working. They get a few GB of my seeding bandwidth every day.

  27. Torrents are known for piracy, but it also has legit uses, such as this.
    Also, can you install Disqus here? Disqus comments are much better than Typepad’s native system. Disqus even gives you step by step instructions for installing. Real easy. I have it installed on my site if with to look at it. Reply and I’ll give you my URL.
    ~MHazell~ (I don’t know why my username is showing up as D….)

  28. Will, Hope you got the ‘alternate install iso’. Those are a better bet for fresh install. OK..I looked at pics again and you DID. GOOD. I use 10.04-4LTS and will probably stick with this one. Didn’t like 12.04 Ubuntu with Unity shell. As for using torrents to obtain Linux distro’s, it’s the recommended method.

  29. I have an unlimited card for the cinema, Netflix on PC and smartphone and use Lovefilm for hiring DVDs and games so I think I give plenty to the industry.
    If I download something via bittorrent its something I cannot get by a “paid-for” means. Like everyone else has said, a download is NOT a lost sale, more like a potential sale.
    Here in the UK Virgin media has just blocked access to the pirate bay, I never used pirate bay much anyway but still hate the fact its been blocked, once ISPs start blocking sites its a slippery slope.

  30. I hate to be blunt here no one needs to use bittorrent to download distributions – I have never had problems in just downloading the distribution I want even on basic adsl lines that where in use by 5/6 other people. And you can just dl the net install (whch is tiny) and install over the wire which is how I did my baby hadoop HPCCC cluster
    I am afraid that people who claim that just becase you can dowload distributions via bitorrent are just despartaly trying to persade themselves that 99.9% of bit torrent is not pirated.
    you might want to read

  31. I’ve never been as worried as my peers about pirating. For one thing, if they read it and like it I may actually have a new paying customer. But when someone is pirating hundreds of files a day what’s the likelihood they are actually going to see MY material? Pretty close to zero. And I don’t think they’d be paying for it if they couldn’t pirate it.
    So it’s just not worth getting my bloomers in a twist over it.
    So if torrent gets you what you need I’m all for it.
    You know this wouldn’t be a problem if we only had the Star Trek economy.

  32. “bittorrent can be used to share files in a piratical way”
    By “piratical”, do you mean in the sense of RFC 1149 or do you mean something akin to “effective”/”efficient” etc.?
    Unless you mean the former I’m afraid I must protest at your choice of adjective!

  33. If they want to shut down tech that “can be used to share files in a piratical way.” then they better shut down everything.

  34. yes, but the analogy is imperfect because copying a dvd something is not perfectly the same as stealing from a bank.
    If we were talking about stealing dvds, then you’d find it easier to get a decent bank robbery analogy, but it turns out there are real differences between copying and stealing.
    One being, when you copy something from someone the someone still has their copy. Very different thing.

  35. It’s nice to see an informed opinion. I agree with many of the opinions above. A download doesn’t automatically equal a lost sale. I am old enough to have taped song after song from the radio to a cassette (and even a reel to reel) so I could hear them whenever I want. I did the same with my trusty VCR and my television. It didn’t stop me from buying everything I could afford and nobody considered me a criminal if I made a tape for my best friend. There is a difference. I think people deserve pay for their work but I don’t think torrents are putting anyone in the poorhouse either. And that doesn’t even address the “legal” torrents which, as you said, save a lot of time and are super convenient. There is too much effort being expended trying to control every aspect of the internet. It’s a great tool and getting the government involved in regulating it is bound to ruin it sooner or later.

  36. I believe the day Wil tried to download Ubuntu was on the day that Ubuntu 12.04 was released. You do indeed have to wait hours to download the distribution directly from their servers from the excess of people all trying to simulataneously download it at the same time. In comparision, the more people that download a torrent, the faster it becomes. The fact that a legitimate company like Canonical uses bit torrent files to help spread its operating system is absolutely a good arguement for the positive impact the bit torrent can have. P2P downloading is the absolute right step in the right direction for an increasingly connected world. Sure there may be a lot of people using it to pirate software, but if it wasn’t chastized in the media and by the movie/music industries, more companies would probably embrace it and use it for their own legal offerings.

  37. P.S. Not to get all Ubuntu fanboi or anything but Wil, I would love to hear how the install went and your opinions on 12.04.

  38. I feel like this blog post needs a GI JOE quote… And knowing is half the battle.
    I’m fully confident that if they were to outlaw and block BT the protocol would evolve to work around those blocks.
    Did you see where they are now going to put a 20 second unskippable FBI warning on the new dvds/blueray disks? The only people who will EVER see those are people who are watching it on the physical media. It’s criminally annoying when paired with all the other crap they stuff on the front end of those things. A downloaded version (without all that) actually has more value to me even if I do have the physical media.

  39. Heh. Welcome to the daily life of anyone who owns a gun (hunters, target shooters, Olympic hopefuls,etc.). The headline-making misuses that are 0.0001% of the actual uses engender thousands of conflicting, inappropriate, and rights-taking laws — while legitimate uses are marginalized, driven out entirely, etc.

  40. I was going to post a long-winded tirade on how Hollywood has become out of touch with their consumer base, but I’m to tired to make sense, so long story short:
    “The Avengers” made over $200 million on opening weekend, and Hollywood still thinks piracy hurts them.

Comments are closed.