[FoRK] NYTimes.com Article: File Sharing’s New Face
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
Thu Feb 12 11:30:06 PST 2004
This article from NYTimes.com
has been sent to you by khare at alumni.caltech.edu.
Hardscrabble hacker done good... intriguing counter to the scary-scare NYT Mag piece last weekend on the Eastern European virus writing underground.
Good work -- and keep an eye on this Seth character, I wonder what other assignments he'll nab...
khare at alumni.caltech.edu
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File Sharing’s New Face
February 12, 2004
By SETH SCHIESEL
AFTER working for a parade of doomed dot-com startups, a
young programmer named Bram Cohen finally got tired of
"I decided I finally wanted to work on a project that
people would actually use, would actually work and would
actually be fun," he recalled.
Three years later, Mr. Cohen, 28, has emerged as the face
of the next wave of Internet file sharing. If Napster
started the first generation of file-sharing, and services
like Kazaa represented the second, then the system
developed by Mr. Cohen, known as BitTorrent, may well be
leading the third. Firm numbers are difficult to come by,
but it appears that the BitTorrent software has been
downloaded more than 10 million times.
And just as earlier forms of file-sharing seem to be waning
in popularity under legal pressure from the music industry,
new technologies like BitTorrent are making it easier than
ever to share and distribute the huge files used for video.
One site alone,
suprnova.org, routinely offers hundreds of television
programs, recent movies and copyrighted software programs.
The movie industry, among others, has taken notice.
What Mr. Cohen has created, however, seems beyond his
control. And when he was developing the system, he said,
widespread copyright infringement was not what he had in
Rather, he was intrigued by a problem familiar to many
Internet users and felt acutely by friends who were trading
music online legally: the excruciating wait while files
were being downloaded.
"Obviously their problem was not enough bandwidth to meet
demand," Mr. Cohen said in an interview at a Mexican
restaurant near his home in Seattle. "It seemed pretty
clear to me that there is a lot of bandwidth out there, but
it's not being used properly. There's all of this upload
capacity that people aren't using."
That was the essential insight behind BitTorrent. Under
older file-sharing systems like Napster and Kazaa, only a
small subset of users actually share files with the world.
Most users simply download, or leech, in cyberspace
BitTorrent, however, uses what could be called a Golden
Rule principle: the faster you upload, the faster you are
allowed to download. BitTorrent cuts up files into many
little pieces, and as soon as a user has a piece, they
immediately start uploading that piece to other users. So
almost all of the people who are sharing a given file are
simultaneously uploading and downloading pieces of the same
file (unless their downloading is complete).
The practical implication is that the BitTorrent system
makes it easy to distribute very large files to large
numbers of people while placing minimal bandwidth
requirements on the original "seeder." That is because
everyone who wants the file is sharing with one another,
rather than downloading from a central source. A separate
file-sharing network known as eDonkey uses a similar
For Mr. Cohen, BitTorrent was always about exercising his
brain rather than trying to fatten his wallet. Unlike many
other file-sharing programs, BitTorrent is both free and
open-source, which means that those with enough technical
know-how can incorporate Mr. Cohen's code into their own
While writing the software, "I lived on savings for a while
and then I lived off credit cards, you know, using those
zero percent introductory rates to use one credit card to
pay off the previous card," Mr. Cohen said.
The first usable version of BitTorrent appeared in October
2002, but the system needed a lot of fine-tuning. Luckily
for Mr. Cohen, he was living in the Bay Area at the time
and his project had attracted the attention of John
Gilmore, the free-software entrepreneur, who had also been
one of the first employees at Sun Microsystems. Mr. Gilmore
ended up helping Mr. Cohen with some of his living expenses
while he finished the system.
"Part of what matters to me about this is that it makes it
possible for people with limited bandwidth to supply very
popular files," Mr. Gilmore said in a telephone interview.
"It means that if you are a small software developer you
can put up a package, and if it turns out that millions of
people want it, they can get it from each other in an
BitTorrent really started to take off in early 2003 when it
was used to distribute a new version of Linux and fans of
Japanese anime started relying on it to share cartoons.
It is difficult to measure BitTorrent's overall use. But
Steven C. Corbato, director of backbone network
infrastructure for Internet2, the high-speed network
consortium, said he took notice in May. "We started seeing
BitTorrent traffic increase right around May 15, 2003, and
by October it was above 10 percent of the traffic," he
Data for the week of Jan. 26, which Mr. Corbato said was
the latest reliable information, showed that BitTorrent
generated 9.3 percent of the total data traffic on
Internet2's so-called Abilene backbone, which connects more
than 200 of the nation's biggest research universities, in
addition to laboratories and state education networks. By
contrast, no other file sharing system registered more than
1 percent of the traffic, though Mr. Corbato said his
network might be underreporting the use of those other
Just a few months ago, however, that success still had not
translated into dollars for Mr. Cohen.
"This past September I had, like, no money," he recalled.
"I was just scraping along and doing the credit card thing
But unknown to Mr. Cohen, BitTorrent was serving as a job
application. Out of the blue, he heard from Gabe Newell,
the managing director of Valve Software, based in nearby
Bellevue, Wash. Valve is developing what gaming experts
anticipate will be a blockbuster video game, Half-Life 2,
but it is also creating an online distribution network that
it calls Steam. Because of Mr. Cohen's expertise in just
that area, Valve offered him a job. He moved to Seattle and
started work in October.
"When we looked around to see who was doing the most
interesting work in this space, Bram's progress on
BitTorrent really stood out," Mr. Newell said. "The
distributed publishing model embedded in BitTorrent is
exactly the kind of thing media companies need to build on
for their own systems."
All along, Mr. Cohen had accepted donations from BitTorrent
users at his Web site, bitconjurer.org, but the sum had
been minimal. In October, however, Mr. Cohen's father
prevailed on him to ask a bit more directly. Now, Mr. Cohen
said, he is receiving a few hundred dollars a day.
"It's been a pretty dramatic turnaround in lifestyle in
just a few months, with the job and the donations coming
in," Mr. Cohen said. "It's nice."
According to survey data from the Pew Internet and American
Life Project, file sharing is on the wane, apparently as a
result of the music industry's legal offensive. Last May,
29 percent of adult Internet users in the United States
reported that they had engaged in file sharing; that figure
dropped to 14 percent in a survey conducted in November and
December. Nonetheless, the ranks of the BitTorrent faithful
- whether anime fanatics, Linux users, Deadheads or movie
pirates - appear to be growing. And some are quite thankful
to Mr. Cohen.
"I think Bram is going to be like Shawn Fanning in terms of
the impact this is going to have," said Steve Hormell, a
co-founder of etree.org, a music-trading site that predates
the file-sharing phenomenon, referring to the inventor of
the original Napster service. "It is a bit of paradigm
shift and I can't stress the community aspect of it enough.
You have to give back in order to get. Going back 15 years,
that's what the Internet was all about until the suits came
Not surprisingly, the movie industry is not amused.
"BitTorrent is definitely on our radar screen," Tom Temple,
the director for Internet enforcement for the Motion
Picture Association of America, said in a telephone
interview. While the association first became aware of the
technology about a year ago, BitTorrent's surging
popularity prompted the group to start sending infringement
notices to BitTorrent site operators in November.
"We do have investigations open into various BitTorrent
link sites that could lead to either civil or criminal
prosecution in the near future," Mr. Temple said.
For his part, Mr. Cohen pointed out that BitTorrent users
are not anonymous and that their numeric Internet addresses
are easily viewable by anyone who cares. "It amazes me that
sites like Suprnova continue to stay up, because it would
be so easy to sue them," he said. Using BitTorrent for
illegal trading, he added, is "patently stupid because it's
not anonymous, and it can't be made anonymous because it's
fundamentally antithetical to the architecture."
That said, Mr. Cohen is not in the nanny business.
not going to get up on my high horse and tell others not to
do it because it's not my place to berate people," he said.
"I just sort of watch it with some amusement."
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