BitTorrent Courts the Entertainment Industry

The file-sharing protocol aims to convert its users into paying customers .

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Once a clearinghouse for illegal Internet downloads, BitTorrent is now testing whether its services can benefit content producers.

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"This is clearly a valuable audience to speak to," he says in a phone interview. "And these 170 million people worldwide are not simply pirates who won't pay for anything. All the myths we hear about BitTorrent users simply aren't true. They will reward content creators, and we've seen that with every single experiment we've run."

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This is not to say he doesn't understand why his company has attracted the reputation it has. The original HTTP protocol was invented for the transfer of text, and as the Internet matured it became a venue for richer media like audio and video, the large files of which became a strain to transfer in large quantities online. The engineer Bram Cohen invented the BitTorrent protocol to spread the files across thousands of distributors, thereby reducing the strain (and download time) on any one network.

"The reason that BitTorrent became thought of as a tool for piracy was because most of the people on the Internet moving rich media saw BitTorrent for the potential for piracy and used it for that," says Mason. "And its name quickly became marred as far as the content industries were concerned." That, however, was never the company's intention.

So far, BitTorrent has formed content partnerships with between one to two artists a month, and it employs a number of methods to promote the files. Perhaps its most successful promotion occurs when a new user downloads the BitTorrent software; Mason says it receives between 600,000 and 800,000 downloads a day, and so BitTorrent simply offers the free file on what he calls the install path.

On most days, the promotion receives between a 40 to 50 percent conversion rate. In other words, nearly half of the 500,000 new users who sign up for the service each day will download the accompanying content file. To put that in perspective, the average display ad online gets a click-through rate of less than one percent. It's not difficult to surmise why the entertainment industry would find this kind of engagement appealing.

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BitTorrent also began rolling out banner ads within its client last year, and though it was met with resistance from a "very vocal minority" of its users, the ads have gotten higher-than-average click-through rates and are now serving upward of 5 billion impressions a month. Recently, BitTorrent aggressively promoted best-selling author Tim Ferriss' new ebook, The 4-hour Chef.

"In the first week he had 200,000 people downloading the content bundle he did, and over 89,000 went and visited his Amazon page," Mason says. "We couldn't see how many people bought the book from his Amazon page, but what we did see is that Tim hit the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today best seller lists, and 89,000 people hitting your Amazon page in your first week, I can tell you that's a really crazy number."

This was likely a welcome number for Ferriss, whose book had been boycotted by more than 1,000 independent bookstores who felt betrayed he had abandoned his traditional book publisher in favor of Amazon's ebook services.

Sometimes, especially for lesser known content creators, this promotional outpouring can almost be overwhelming.

Josh Bernhard and Bracey Smith, two filmmakers based in New York City, got to experience BitTorrent's geyser of user interaction when they uploaded the pilot episode of their science fiction show Pioneer One onto the network. The two had used Kickstarter to raise a shoestring budget of $7,000 to create the pilot, and they didn't originally intend to make any additional episodes -- the pilot was meant to simply act as a "proof of concept."

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But when the episode was featured on Vodo.net, a curator of BitTorrent content, they received $20,000 in PayPal donations in only two weeks.

"We sort of realized that we had the means to keep on making more and finish the season," says Bernhard. They eventually raised enough money to shoot six episodes with the help of about 4,000 individual donations, he says.



Corrected on 02/11/13: An earlier version of this article misidentified Matt Mason’s title and BitTorrent’s platform.