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BitTorrent Looks to Spruce Up Its Image With Hollywood

File-sharing software developer is forming new content partnerships as it tries to convince showbiz it's not the enemy

BitTorrent’s slogan is meant to be a manifesto of empowerment: “Delivering an Internet of options, not rules.”

But it’s not a message that plays well in Hollywood, which has viewed the Internet as in dire need of rules since, well, forever. BitTorrent in particular has been a thorn in many copyright owners’ sides, as a company whose file-sharing software and technology serves as the foundation for a global piracy juggernaut.

BitTorrent has long insisted its software doesn’t facilitate illegal copying any more than Web browsers do. Now, in its latest attempt to reach detente with content companies, BitTorrent is trying to convince them that its peer-to-peer file-swapping infrastructure is actually an ideal way to distribute promotional material in “bundles,” a means to lure consumers into buying the full content on iTunes or some other service. Later this spring, the company promises, the BitTorrent Bundles will let publishers charge for content — theoretically, rehabbing would-be pirates into paying customers.

In recent months, BitTorrent has teamed with Vice Media, Madonna, Lady Gaga, Moby and other filmmakers and musicians to launch promotional content bundles. Those packages have included photos, trailers, videos, songs, posters and other digital extras, in hopes downloaders will go see or purchase a movie, attend a concert or, say, buy a T-shirt. This spring, BitTorrent plans to add a payment capability to let users unlock a bundle using a credit card.

“We have to solve this pain point with the content industries,” said BitTorrent marketing veep Matt Mason. Piracy is “a question we have to answer every day.”

For Cinedigm chief marketing officer Jill Newhouse Calcaterra, the prospect of tapping into BitTorrent’s 170 million-plus user base was irresistible. The studio distributed a clip of romantic comedy “Arthur Newman” via BitTorrent last April. The bundle was downloaded 2.7 million times, and resulted in 300,000-plus visits to Cinedigm’s website.

“BitTorrent has been popular because consumers are hungry for content they couldn’t get otherwise,” she said. “Instead of slamming the door on them, we are helping them find it.”

Drafthouse Films, distributor of Oscar-nominated doc “The Act of Killing,” launched a BitTorrent Bundle on Dec. 31 with videos, interviews, essays and photos about the film. The bundle for the doc, which details genocidal acts in 1960s Indonesia, has been downloaded 4.5 million times — almost four times the number of YouTube views for the trailer.

“People are attracted by the fact that we’re thinking different,” said Evan Husney, Drafthouse’s creative director for acquisitions. “We’re working with BitTorrent in a progressive way, and that’s good for us in terms of our brand.”

BitTorrent has tried to go legit before: In 2006, it cut deals with about 65 studios and music labels to sell digital downloads through its software. That fizzled because prices were too high and content playback highly restricted, according to BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker.

Today, as piracy has continued to flourish, big studios and other major entertainment producers are deeply wary of BitTorrent and are loath to grant it legitimacy through partnerships. In 2013, the amount of bandwidth consumed by BitTorrent users in North America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific who downloaded pirated content was a staggering 6,692 petabytes of data — the equivalent of 3.5 billion hours of HD video — an increase of 245% from 2011, according to a September 2013 study by NetNames.

Moreover, an analysis of 12,500 torrent files in January 2013 found that 99% of them (excluding pornography) were infringing, according to the NetNames study, which was funded by NBCUniversal.

San Francisco-based BitTorrent, which has about 150 employees, says it’s profitable, with revenues derived from ads that appear in its software, as well as a premium version of its service without ads that sells for $25 per year. Transaction fees from content sold through Bundles could add a new revenue stream.

Calcaterra compared Hollywood shunning BitTorrent because of piracy to blaming freeways for drunk drivers. “BitTorrent gets a bad rap,” she said, noting that she’s gotten “a lot of flak” from other studios about Cinedigm’s marketing deals with the company. “They have an amazing content-sharing tool, and our job as entertainment marketers is to find the way to use it.”

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