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Guest tensegg

The FBI doesn't like it. The Department of Homeland Security is so concerned that it has closed down websites related to it. The Moving Picture Association of America is waging a war against it. And every day millions of people around the world use it to share music, TV programmes and movies.

The "it" is BitTorrent - a computer program that's the brainchild of the softly-spoken Bram Cohen. It is a super-smart way to share huge files over the internet, and one which, depending on whose side of the argument you listen to, is either an evil tool for those involved with copyright theft, or a work of genius set to transform the media industry as we know it.

Recent research has shown that, last year, BitTorrent was responsible for one third of all traffic on the internet. That's one third. And this despite a wave of legal activity against the peer-to-peer technology (P2P) that underpins Cohen's brainchild.

In essence, BitTorrent is just the latest in a line of programs that started with Napster and allows individuals to swap information with each other over the internet. An OECD report on digital music released this week revealed that at any one time there are as many as 10 million people exchanging files using all forms of P2P. Business Week has estimated that the total number of users could be as high as 100 million.

BitTorrent has become more popular than its competition because it is much more efficient. Systems such as Napster and Kazaa often used to grind to a halt because the files that were being shared sat on one computer, and could only be downloaded as quickly as the lines going in and out of that computer would allow.

Cohen's idea was to break the files up into bits. Once someone downloaded a bit, they also became a source for that bit. As a result, more people downloading a file meant there were also more people uploading it, which meant it actually became faster rather than slower.

Originally intended for software developers to move their work around the net, it wasn't long before BitTorrent became popular with music and video fans. This shouldn't have come as much of a surprise: instead of people simply swapping songs of around 3-4 megabytes, using BitTorrent they could swap whole movies of about 500 times bigger (1.5 gigabytes).

And swap they do. Anything and everything digital is shared. Legal and illegal. People gather on sites where they can download files or "torrents", which they then run on their own computer using special software. If you have a broadband connection and can set it all up (and you need to be reasonably technically competent to do so), you can download an album in an hour; an hour's worth of TV in a couple of hours; and a movie overnight.

A quick word of caution here: first, downloading copyright material is illegal. Second, setting it up is quite fiddly. If you are the sort of person hell-bent on watching the latest Star Wars film while it is still officially only available in the cinema, you will find it much easier to buy it on DVD from the dodgy bloke carrying a bin bag around your local pub.

Needless to say, the advent of torrent sharing is not making the movie industry happy - and, like the recording industry before it, the response is lawsuit-shaped.

The Motion Picture Association of America - the organisation that has been most vehemently against the growth of BitTorrent - has, until now, focused its attention not on BitTorrent itself, but on sites that allow the downloading of torrents. One such site was EliteTorrents.org. It was here that around 100,000 people a day would gather to get the latest files, and it was also here that the final instalment of Star Wars, Revenge of the Sith, appeared - six hours before it was due to open in US cinemas. On May 28, officers from the FBI swooped on a number of homes and offices across the US in what was called operation D-Elite. Within hours, the site was no more.

If you go to EliteTorrents.org today, you will find that its sleek grey design replaced by the logos of the FBI and the US Department of Homeland Security alongside a bold announcement: "This site has been permanently shut down by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and US Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Individuals involved in the operation and use of the Elite Torrents network are under investigation for criminal copyright infringement."

Dan Glickman the president of the MPAA declared the closure of EliteTorrents was "bad news for internet movie thieves and good news for preserving the magic of the movies".

It's fair to say that the movie industry is rarely first in line for a sympathy vote. It claims that piracy costs it $3.5bn (Ј1.9bn) a year, a figure that doesn't include the losses from internet file sharing. However, the very thing that lays behind the dramatic increase in piracy - the arrival of the DVD - has also brought the industry some quite spectacular dividends. The DVD market in the US last year was worth $21.2bn (Ј11.6bn); with the retail market alone up year on year by 33%. And it continues to grow every year.

The precise impact of P2P on sales is also a moot point. While the industry believes it has a detrimental affect, this week's report from the OECD on digital music admitted that "digital piracy may be an important impediment to the success of legitimate online content markets", but "it is difficult to establish a basis to prove a causal relationship between the 20% fall in overall revenues experienced by the music industry between 1999 and 2003."

The other debate is whether BitTorrent itself (and, by extension, Cohen) is responsible for piracy. No one is arguing whether or not copyright infringement happens, but whether by banning the software that allows it you are also stifling a new and exciting technology.

At the moment, the US supreme court is making its mind up in the case of MGM v Grokster - where the issue is whether a piece of software itself can be held responsible for the piracy that is committed using it. The landmark case in this area, goes back to 1984 when the movie industry tried to kill off the video recorder. The defendant back then was Sony which now, as a studio owner, finds itself on the other side of the divide.

Whatever develops in the courts, it is clear that BitTorrent offers much more than movie piracy; it might change the future of TV too.

One of the most popular uses of torrent technology is to allow people to watch whatever TV they want when they want it. The latest episodes of major US TV series normally appear on Torrent sites almost immediately after they have been broadcast. This is an unofficial version of video-on-demand: something that has been promised for the best part of a decade by broadcasters but has never been delivered.

Thanks to BitTorrent, however, it is available here and now and free. In this world the traditional restrictions of schedules and broadcasting territories disappear. You want to watch the latest OC, 24, or Desperate Housewives months before it arrives in the UK? No problem. You're addicted to Comedy Central's the Daily Show, but don't subscribe to Cable? It's all yours.

One site, UK Nova, specialises in providing TV programmes to those who can't get them because they are outside the UK. It started as an informal way for a small gang of expat EastEnders addicts to get their daily fix and now, a year later, has a global community of 30,000 people swapping all sorts of new and vintage programming - from Jamie Oliver to Are You Being Served?.

Roger, one of the site's moderators - a British expat living in Germany - stresses that they are providing a service to people who simply can't get these programmes - and they are keen not to do anything to damage the broadcasters' commercial interests. They automatically remove anything that is released on DVD, for example. "If there was a legal service that allowed us to do this," he says, "we'd happily pay for it."

And it just so happens that there is at least one in the offing. The BBC is currently trialing its interactive media player (iMP) with hundreds of hours of BBC video made available for download over the internet up to a week after its original broadcast. IMP itself uses a form of P2P software to allow the files to be downloaded.

But as its technology is adapted, copied and improved, perhaps the greatest legacy of BitTorrent will not be as a way for major broadcasters, record labels and movie studios to distribute their goods. Instead, by reducing the cost of online distribution to almost zero, it allows anyone to have a global audience.

For example, one site, LegalTorrents, offers links to a wide range of music and video from creators who are happy to have their work distributed on the net. You won't find Star Wars there or Mr and Mrs Smith, but you will find The Meaty McMeat Show a "completely insane 99-minute-long animated movie that involves a diseased human organ and his colleague who travel back in time to meet a psychic talking pie".

And how can any technology that allows such a masterpiece to be seen around the world be all bad?

· Simon Waldman http://film.guardian.co.uk/piracy/story/0,...1508465,00.html

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