P-to-P goes Hollywood

BitTorrent co-founder talks up business plans and death of DRM

With all the legal disputes arising from P-to-P (peer to peer) file sharing networks such as Napster, Gnutella, and KaZaa in recent years, it’s easy to forget that the concept of P-to-P networks is almost as old as the Internet itself. In fact, decentralized networks that harness the computing resources of hosts rather than servers are behind services as diverse as Usenet and IRC.

Since the late 1990s, however, the term P2P been sullied by its association with illegal online music and video swapping, not to mention software piracy. Now the folks over at BitTorrent hope to change that. In recent weeks, the San Francisco company has taken bold steps to shake off its “underground” status, landing $20 million in venture capital funding and striking content deals with leading media companies.

InfoWorld Senior Editor Paul F. Roberts caught up with BitTorrent co-founder Ashwin Navin to talk about the company’s fast evolving plans to be a commercial content distribution platform and take on the likes of iTunes as a media distribution hub.

InfoWorld: P-to-P has been associated with file sharing in the minds of many people, but you’re saying it has broader applications. What problems can BitTorrent solve that companies have now?

Ashwin Navin: One of the fundamental concepts of what people call Web 2.0 is that the audience has the capacity and the resources. Successful Web 2.0 companies harness the intelligence or resources of its audience. The Internet is a two-way medium, unlike the broadcast world. BitTorrent asks its audience to upload while it’s consuming, so that demand brings supply. And that’s the interesting concept, and it’s something that pure online retailers haven’t grasped yet. We’re trying to provide that layer of technology to everyone who’s providing content on the Internet.

: You’ve been described as a technology without a business model. How would you respond to that?


AN: I think our business model is pretty well defined. As far as we’re concerned, there are two ways for us to make money. The first is aggregating content and selling it to our audience; that’s our media business. The second is that we deliver content from customers’ Web sites. That’s our content delivery business. We’re going to launch both businesses early next year. The content aggregation business in February [2007].

IW: P-to-P has been a minefield of litigation. How do you navigate that minefield so that lawsuits don’t get in the way of your vision?

AN: We take comfort in the Supreme Court decision on Grokster. That placed a lot of emphasis on intent. So if you have the right intent you should take comfort in the fact that the law and any courtroom will look at what you’ve done to validate your status. From the very early days, [BitTorrent inventor] Bram [Cohen] never encouraged anyone to use BitTorrent for piracy. In fact, he said that would be a stupid thing to do, because BitTorrent doesn’t guarantee you any anonymity. In fact, we’ve gone to copyright holders and tried to engage them in licensing efforts so people can go out and license their content legally.

IW Nevertheless, people enjoy BitTorrent for the access it gives them to unlicensed content. Are you going to clean up torrents to get rid of that?

AN: Absolutely. BitTorrent.com is filtered so that we will not surface links for unlicensed content.

IW: Where is the fulcrum between sharing content and preventing free-form piracy? 

AN: I actually don’t think that if content owner and content rights holders take an inventory of the way that people want to consume content and embrace, rather than fight it, DRM almost becomes irrelevant. If people can use content in the way they want offline and online they won’t care about DRM, because the content is consumed in a flexible use case.

IW: So over the time DRM goes away?

AN: Over time. Yes. There’s huge amounts of value for publishers to license a TV show over and over again. Today they can’t stomach the risk of allowing content to be published free and clear of DRM. But eventually they’ll realize that’s the way people are going to consume it anyway, so they might as well profit from it.