BitTorrent goes legit

Biggest name in piracy gets studio support

After over a year of negotiations with Hollywood, the biggest name in piracy is going legit.

BitTorrent today is launching its digital content store, featuring movies, TV shows and videogames from partners including Fox, Lionsgate, Paramount, MGM, and MTV Networks.

It also has content from several indie distributors, such as First Look, Palm Pictures and Japanese company Kadokawa, as well as TryMedia, an online vidgame distributor with titles from Activision, Ubisoft and Vivendi Games.

BitTorrent first revealed its intentions to go legit in a press conference with the Motion Picture Assn. of America held over a year ago. It originally hoped to launch in fall, but delayed until winter in an effort to sign up more studio partners. It pushed back the launch an extra week when it was able to sign MGM at the last minute.

Though it hoped to have all the major studios on board, BitTorrent eventually decided to enter the increasingly crowded market before it became too late.

“We have been ready to go for a while,” CEO Ashwin Navin said. “There comes a point in time where you say we’ve got 10,000 titles ready to go and we shouldn’t wait anymore. We’re confident that we’ll be adding more studios soon.”

BitTorrent the company developed the peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent, which is free and used by tens of millions of people around the world, primarily for piracy.

As a result, Netco has the advantage of a very well-known brand name among online downloaders and a very popular Web site, but it will go up against powerful competitors already in the market such as Apple, Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Wal-Mart.

Premium TV and movie content won’t be well differentiated from other sites, as BitTorrent is offering the same usage rules and prices and is missing several partners, such as Disney, Universal and the big three broadcast nets, that are already working with others.

But BitTorrent has more indie partners and will try to stay true to its roots as a peer-to-peer application by including high-quality user-made videos alongside Hollywood content in its search results.

However, company has to balance user expectations of access to the huge amount of content on servers around the world with studio demands that it block piracy.

BitTorrent has been working aggressively to filter pirated content on its own site and will make users click a button to see search results from outside servers, which it doesn’t control.

It will also use its P2P technology to enable faster downloads than most others Web sites. That could potentially make it easier to offer hi-def content, which has been very popular on Microsoft’s Xbox Live, the only digital movie store that current has legal HD downloads. However, at launch, BitTorrent only has HD content from cable TV service Voom, not the studios.

Movies will only be available for digital rental, not permanent downloads, based on company’s observations of demand at other websites based on the DVD-equivalent prices studios offer.

“I just don’t know who in marketing at the other stores thinks that $25 movie downloads are going to do it for consumers,” said Navin.

In addition to selling TV and game downloads and movie rentals, BitTorrent will start offering free ad-supported TV shows in the near future.

It’s launching in the U.S. first, but company has international rights for most content and plans to hit foreign markets soon.

BitTorrent application has enabled an explosion of digital content — both pirated and legal — on the Web in the past few years, spread mainly through communities that build up around websites and message boards. Netco is hoping to foster that community on its new legit store through user participation in how content is sorted and highlighted and by offering a mix of premium and amateur content in its search results.

“The more our users participate, the better and better this will get,” Navin predicted.

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