Opinion
Get Opinion in your inbox -- sign up for our weekly newsletter
Opinion Opinion L.A.
Opinion

BitTorrent Inc. hits 100 million (legal) file shares with Bundles

BitTorrent Inc. reports that its BitTorrent Bundles program has surpassed 100 million legal file shares

TorrentFreak, a website that tracks (and often cheerleads for) illegal file-sharing, reported Monday that the season finale of "Game of Thrones" was on its way to an estimated 7.5 million illegal downloads via the BitTorrent protocol. If that proves true, it would be the highest total the site has ever documented.

Less sensationally, BitTorrent Inc. -- the company behind the BitTorrent protocol -- reported Monday that its BitTorrent Bundles program had now surpassed 100 million legal file shares. In the grand scheme of things, 100 million downloads and streams isn't a big number. Pandora streamed 1.7 billion hours of audio last month alone. But for a fledgling service whose technology is still missing a couple of key pieces, it's a healthy start.

The BitTorrent protocol is particularly well suited for distributing big files and huge quantities of data. That characteristic has made BitTorrent the vehicle of choice for many illegal downloaders and online piracy hotbeds, even though the company has long tried to establish itself as a legitimate business partner for filmmakers, musicians, book publishers and other content owners.

A little more than a year ago, BitTorrent Inc. launched the Bundles program to let content owners obtain something valuable in exchange for their files. It works like this: People can download the initial part of the package for free, but the rest is locked behind a virtual gate, with the content owners holding the keys.

The most popular bundle of 2013 was from Moby, who had 8.9 million downloads for a make-your-own-remix version of his latest album, "Innocents." According to Matt Mason, BitTorrent Inc.'s chief content officer, that total was 3 million higher than the most pirated TV show (by TorrentFreak's reckoning), that year's season finale of ... "Game of Thrones." In fact, Mason said, the top five bundles of last year all were downloaded more often than that episode.

The most popular bundle of 2014 is from Drafthouse Films, which offered supplementary content for "The Act of Killing," its documentary about Indonesian death squads. That one has been downloaded 4 million times so far, Mason said, including a significant number from Indonesia, where the film isn't available.

But as Mason noted in a recent interview, Bundles is "not a finished product yet." Publishers can't yet demand payment for locked content; at this point, the most they can do is obtain the downloader's email address and offer a link to a site where content can be purchased. And while the technology has improved over time, adding such features as the ability to stream as well as download files, the company still hasn't developed the ability to customize the bundle geographically so downloaders in Lima, Peru, can be offered something different from those in Lima, Ohio.

Those shortcomings help explain why the Bundles program has been more popular with lesser-known artists and creators, although it has attracted some independent-minded household names (such as Moby, Madonna, Public Enemy and Eddie Izzard). More than 10,000 publishers have signed up to use the program, with about 1,000 bundles released so far.

A turning point for Bundles is likely to come next month. That's when Mason said the company will add a "pay gate," enabling publishers to put what amounts to a store inside a torrent file and charge for their content.

The first such bundle will be from a well-known artist, Mason said. "It's going to be a big deal," he said, but offered no further details.

That doesn't mean that the millions of people who use BitTorrent's software to obtain free bootlegs will be willing to open their PayPal accounts to buy legitimate downloads and streams. According to Mason, the typical bundle has a conversion rate -- the percentage of people who surrender their email address to unlock content or click to buy the file at iTunes -- is only 2%. Yet that's an order of magnitude better than the conversion rate for an online ad. And the rate is likely to improve when pay gates arrive and publishers offer more valuable content.

But why would content owners try to sell to an audience of file-sharers? For starters, the audience is enormous, even if it may not be as large as it once was. According to online monitoring company Sandvine, BitTorrent usage accounted for 4% of the Internet traffic in North America in the second half of last year, less than Netflix and YouTube but more than iTunes, Hulu and other legitimate content outlets.

Second, unlike just about any other distribution method online, BitTorrent software performs better as the demand for content grows. Rather than distributing a file from a single server, BitTorrent grabs pieces of a file from anyone running the software who's already downloaded it. The more people who've downloaded a file, the more who can upload pieces to other users. That's one reason the trippy hip hop band De La Soul signed up to use Bundles after its effort to give away downloadable albums via Dropbox crashed minutes after launching.

Third, and perhaps most important, the economics of Bundles are better than those of other online distributors. BitTorrent Inc. takes a fraction of the split demanded by the likes of iTunes (typically, 30%). The potential difference is most pronounced in streaming, where the royalties paid by subscription services (e.g., Spotify) and online radio outlets (e.g., Pandora) are microscopic. The Bundles program also enables publishers, not BitTorrent Inc., to gather crucial data about sales patterns and demographics.

Mason noted that the world seems to be shifting toward on-demand streaming and away from selling downloads to consumers who build their own libraries of content. But artists haven't given up on that idea, he said. "They all want to sell stuff directly to their fans. We’re building a product that enables them to do that."

Follow Healey's intermittent Twitter feed: @jcahealey

Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times
Related Content
  • Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Rand Paul: How to end the NSA dragnet

    Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Rand Paul: How to end the NSA dragnet

    One year ago this month, Americans learned that their government was engaged in secret dragnet surveillance, which contradicted years of assurances to the contrary from senior government officials and intelligence leaders.

  • My aging brain makes me feel stupid

    My aging brain makes me feel stupid

    Meet my brain. It is the size of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar's fist, the consistency of flan, weighs as much as a two-slice toaster and looks like ground round with a high fat content. If you saw it at the butcher's, you'd ask for something a little less beige.

  • New study says Hepatitis drugs could cost state taxpayers billions

    New study says Hepatitis drugs could cost state taxpayers billions

    Jaws dropped earlier this year when Gov. Jerry Brown told the Legislature that he wanted to set aside $300 million for two years' worth of specialty drugs for Medi-Cal users, state prisoners and others covered by state health programs. Even with a general fund of more than $110 billion, $300 million...

  • Once again, a U.S. Embassy in Havana

    Once again, a U.S. Embassy in Havana

    Later this month, the United States and Cuba will reopen embassies in each other's capitals for the first time since severing relations in 1961. This has been expected since President Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro announced in December that they intended to restore diplomatic ties. As Obama...

  • In today's world, fear corporations or fear nations?

    In today's world, fear corporations or fear nations?

    I do not often side with Republicans against Democrats. Nor has President Obama been known for his working relationship with congressional Republicans. Yet on the Trans-Pacific Partnership — which died in the House three weeks ago, only to be resurrected by the Senate last Wednesday — I find myself...

  • How to handle Puerto Rico's debt crisis

    How to handle Puerto Rico's debt crisis

    This has not been the best week for risky government securities. First, the Greek government failed to make a $1.7-billion payment that was due Tuesday. Then the Puerto Rican government revealed that its debt had become unsustainable, although it managed to forestall a default by making more than...

  • Why another look at affirmative action?

    Why another look at affirmative action?

    Since 2003, when the Supreme Court last ruled that state universities may take race into account in their admissions policies without violating the Constitution, opponents of affirmative action have worked tirelessly to have the court revisit the issue. They were jubilant this week when the justices...

  • Crowdfunding Greece: What's your level of giving?

    Crowdfunding Greece: What's your level of giving?

    Hey there, world citizens! As you may have heard, Greece is in a bad way — tossed between Scylla and Charybdis, as the Greeks would say. But then, the Greeks had a word for everything.

Comments
Loading