BitTorrent Inc., the San Francisco developer of the world's most popular tool for online piracy, has been trying for years to persuade studios, labels and other content owners to put torrent-sharing technology to legitimate use. To that end, it rolled out BitTorrent Bundles in mid-2013, a format exclusively for authorized content, and has gradually added features to support a growing number of business models: first the ability to offer free files in exchange for email addresses, then advertiser-sponsored downloads, and then paid downloads à la Apple's iTunes store.
On Thursday the company took one more step forward, rolling out a smartphone app that gives users access only to legal content, not the pirated copies of "Game of Thrones" and other videos that illegal downloaders gravitate to. It also offered ad-supported streaming as an option to go along with free and fee-based downloads.
The moves are something the company's new top executives promised earlier this year, when they declared that they too were going to focus on legitimate content distribution. The company also gave Bundles a new name: BitTorrent Now.
Whether ad-supported streaming makes a difference will depend on how eager advertisers are to reach BitTorrent's clientele. The number of people who use BitTorrent's file-sharing technology is enormous — an estimated 200 million worldwide — although it's not yet clear how many of them will embrace apps that provide no access to pirated material.
It's worth noting that BitTorrent, the company, doesn't encourage piracy or make bootlegs available itself. Instead, it developed, maintains and distributes a file-sharing technology that millions of people worldwide have put to illegal use (egged on by sites such as the Pirate Bay that help people find bootlegged files). Still, BitTorrent has benefited indirectly from the illegal copying through the ad-supported free version of its file-sharing software.
Some content owners have been cool to using BitTorrent and other file-sharing networks because they don't like the idea of offering legal downloads amid pirated copies. The new BitTorrent app addresses that issue by providing no means to search for or share unauthorized content. In fact, initially it will act as a conventional streaming app, rather than employing BitTorrent's distributed file-sharing technology. Chief Executive Jeremy Johnson said the app will eventually incorporate the latter, although that would presumably chew up more of its users' monthly data allowances.
Other content owners, meanwhile, have been drawn to BitTorrent because so many people use the technology. According to the company, publishers have used BitTorrent Bundles to make more than 30,000 packages of content available. One of the most successful was Thom Yorke, who sold 4.5 million copies of his last solo album through Bundles. The Bundles format also encourages multimedia packages that combine free material with paid content.
Notwithstanding the support by Yorke, Madonna and some other establish artists, Bundle has primarily been an outlet for "breaking content and emerging talent," as Straith Schreder, the company's Culver City-based vice president of creative initiatives, put it. That's clear from the partners that BitTorrent announced for its BitTorrent Now launch, almost all of which are indie filmmakers, labels and artists such as Kiyiki, iHeartComix, Bond360 and Adam Bhala Lough. (An exception is Super Deluxe, a new digital video network owned by Time Warner subsidiary Turner Broadcasting.)
The launch partners also include indie film distributor Oscilloscope Laboratories, whose releases include well-reviewed but limited-release films such as "The Fits" and "Embrace of the Serpent." In a recent interview, Oscilloscope President Dan Berger said, "I'm very much a proponent of making the film available where people want it available."
With a library of films made for well under $10 million each, Oscilloscope doesn't trade in the sort of event movies that fans will go out of their way to find, Berger said. "We have to bring the movies to them. BitTorrent is just another means of doing that."
In Berger's view, BitTorrent Now puts Oscilloscope's movies in front of a young, tech-savvy audience that probably doesn't use any of the better known online video-on-demand services. And so far, the exposure generated has been good for the studio, Berger said; for example, the "Embrace of the Serpent" trailer was downloaded or streamed almost 3 million times through BitTorrent in about three weeks. That total dwarfs the number of times the company's trailer has been viewed on YouTube.
Berger has a more ambivalent view of piracy than many others in the film businesses; in his view, someone who downloads a free copy of an obscure foreign-language drama probably wasn't going to pay to see the film in a theater. Of course, the stakes are different for his studio than for a Warner Bros. or a Disney, where the marketing budget for a single film can exceed what Oscilloscope spends to acquire a whole year's worth of releases.
Still, Berger said he's a strong believer in the importance of putting movies in theaters first, well before making them available online. The 10 films Oscilloscope is putting on BitTorrent Now have already had their theatrical runs and been released for home video. And Berger isn't ready to try BitTorrent's ad-supported streaming, at least not yet. Instead, users will have to pay to watch the films, although viewers will be allowed to set their own price (no lower than $1).
"We believe the quality of the films is strong enough, that's ultimately going to make them work," Berger said.
Healey writes editorials for The Times' Opinion section.