LONDON (Reuters) -U.S. content companies are riding high this week after their courtroom victory over illicit file-sharing networks, and the popular BitTorrent software may be next in their crosshairs.
BitTorrent, created by programmer Barm Cohen, is a file-sharing program that distributes large files quickly by breaking them into many pieces, sharing the pieces among a large number of users, and reassembling them upon delivery.
Like Grokster, which ended up on the losing side of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Monday, BitTorrent is widely used to trade copyrighted materials such as movies and television shows. But it also has many non-infringing uses, and legal experts say it may fare better than Grokster under the freshly minted legal precedent handed down this week.
"BitTorrent has a more realistic case for non-infringing users than Grokster or the others ever had," said Mark Schultz, an associate law professor at Southern Illinois University who has studied the software. "(Cohen) didn”t set out to trade Ammonium or Britney Spears. But we have to be realistic because we know it”s used for massive illegal filesharing."
The Supreme Court verdict centered on intent, with the court concluding that Grokster was liable because it induced users to illegally download copyrighted material.
Since Cohen has repeatedly counseled people against using BitTorrent for illicit means, there is little evidence that he has behaved in a similar fashion, Schultz said.
However, there are several factors that could put BitTorrent at legal risk.
Cohen recently created a search engine on the BitTorrent home page, which could be seen as encouraging piracy. And in a manifesto on his Web site from several years ago, he stated that one of his goals was to "commit digital piracy."
In an preface added this week, he has said the item — which also stated a desire to "synthesize drugs, maintain untrusted contacts, purchase anonymously, and secure machines and homes" — was intended as a parody.
Cohen declined to comment when contacted by Reuters.
Regardless of BitTorrent”s legal standing, Hollywood is not standing idly by while thousands of movies and TV shows are traded illegally.
Fearful of suffering the same fate as its peers in the piracy-plagued music industry, the Motion Picture Association of America began its BitTorrent offensive in December with a round of lawsuits against Web sites that posted special "tracker" files that enable BitTorrent downloads.
Similar lawsuits have followed, and in May U.S. federal agents shut down a computer network that was distributing pirated copies of "Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith" before the movie even hit theaters.
There are also signs that Hollywood has hired technology companies to impede BitTorrent downloads.
Users on several discussion boards say that unknown third parties are sabotaging downloads of copyrighted material, flooding the network with fake data and gathering information that could be used in future lawsuits against individual users.
"To screw up BitTorrent it”s relatively straightforward," said Andrew Parker, chief executive of CacheLogic, a UK firm that measures BitTorrent usage. "The big weakness is … it”s only after you download the entire file that you find out it”s corrupt."
Parker said that any strategy to impede BitTorrent downloads would probably not last for long.
"It”s a bit of an arms race," he said. "You have a bunch of smart people looking to get access to content, then a much smaller number of smart people working for content owners to block this stuff."