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If you've heard of Bittorrent, the latest download rage, you're probably have your whole hard drive filled with free movies, songs, and software. For those who haven't, it's sophisticated peer-to-peer software that speeds up the process of distributing very large files and it is probably the currently most popular method for swapping video files. Torrent sites host links to trackers – computers that manage connections for a particular file. These also do not necessarily host illegal copies of copyrighted material but they point to "seeds" – computers with whole copies of the file being distributed. The would-be downloader clicks on a tracker link, and downloads a tiny file that communicates with the tracker, kicking off the process of connecting you to peers you can download from.


Bittorrent is not particularly protective of privacy: it's easy enough to view (and log) all the IP addresses of the multiple folks you're downloading from at any one time. But it can be mercilessly efficient. Using it, I picked up Microsoft's Windows XP Service Pack 2 in an hour or two (until Microsoft sent in its attack dogs to stop the site from offering the file), and you can download friday night's episode of Battlestar Galactica in as little as half an hour if you have a good connection. The popularity of a file has a lot to do with its download speed; the opposite of traditional downloading systems like FTP, with Bittorrent the more people who are downloading a particular file the faster you get it – because they are also uploading it. Something that's not in as hot immediate demand, say an 8.5Gb entire season of Queer Eye for the Straight Girl, can take as long as a week to download – but if you have broadband, what do you care?


You can see why Bittorrent quickly became popular among people wanting to swap digital copies of TV shows, movies, and games. These types of files are huge compared to those itty-bitty (3-4Mb) MP3s music-lovers bat around. Long-term, the demonstration of what it can do for mass distribution of popular material (as in the XPSP2 demonstration) is the more significant thing about it – the technology unquestionably does have substantial non-infringing uses.


In the last few weeks, some of the most significant TV/film Torrent sites have disappeared, notably Suprnova. These sites were not, of course, hosting copyrighted material, as noted above, though it's not clear how far that argument will get them in the current legal climate. Only one Bittorrent site so far, Lokitorrent, seems to be fighting back, raising funds to mount a defense. This follows last summer's jihad against eDonkey, which significantly slowed down that P2P network.


The obvious comparisons aside, TV and film swapping is really not the same as music-swapping. Music file-sharing really took off among US college students who had hot and cold running ethernet in their dorm rooms. Video-swapping, in my experience, skews more heavily towards Europeans. The key is time-shifting. Do you want to wait six months to see the latest episode of your favorite American show with the commercial breaks in all the wrong places? Or do you want to see it the day after broadcast? Neatly edited, without commercials?


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