MPAA vs. BitTorrent

by on December 15, 2004

The Washington Post reports that the MPAA is launching a legal campaign against three file-sharing networks, eDonkey, Direct Connect, and BitTorrent.

The Post makes a pretty basic error: BitTorrent is not a company. This should have been obvious from its minimalist web site. They’re an open source project widely popular in the open source community.

Moreover, unlike with traditional P2P networks, not just any client can upload a BitTorrent file. Instead, you have to run a “tracker” on a server somewhere to coordinate the downloading of files– or ask the operator of another tracker to serve your file. What that means is that trackers operators have considerable control over which files are offered, and different BitTorrent servers will have different mixes of files on offer.

What will be interesting about this case is that many BitTorrent downloads are entirely legal. Open source projects are typically distributed for free over the Internet, and it takes gobs of bandwidth to do so. Many open source projects are available for download via BitTorrent to save themselves bandwidth.

What this means is that, to an extent not true in the Grokster case, there really are “substantial non-infringing uses” to the BitTorrent application, as required by the landmark Sony Betamax case. The argument used against Grokster–that the company’s business model depended on pirated files, and the few legitimate downloads were just window dressing–just won’t stick against BitTorrent.

The MPAA’s lawyers seem to understand this, because they’re targetting trackers rather than the developers of BitTorrent itself. And I assume they understand it well enough to focus their attacks on those trackers that offer little else but copyrighted content.

The Post’s David McGuire, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to understand the technology involved. That’s not actually too surprising. Reporters often mangle technical details. But this is a case where the technical details matter, and so it’s hard to understand what the legal battle is about if they get mangled.

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