Peer-to-peer file-sharing network BitTorrent has become notorious as a tool for piracy, but now it may help bring legal video downloading further into mainstream.
According to CNET, BitTorrent is making good on an earlier promise by opening an online store, the BitTorrent Entertainment Network. Last November, BitTorrent announced deals to sell content from Viacom's (NYSE: VIA ) Paramount and MTV, News Corp.'s (NYSE: NWS ) 20th Century Fox, and Lions Gate (NYSE: LGF ) , following a previous deal with Time Warner's Warner Bros. Now, it seems, the service is ready for prime time.
Why should we care? It's not just about the 135 million users BitTorrent claims to represent. BitTorrent's peer-to-peer file-swarming technology also speeds up file downloading, an important distinction.
After all, many people have been relatively unimpressed thus far by sluggish download speeds for full-length feature film offerings from Amazon.com (Nasdaq: AMZN ) and Apple's (Nasdaq: AAPL ) iTunes. Netflix (Nasdaq: NFLX ) has dipped its toe into digital video delivery, but it just streams video content to users' computers, and that service doesn't include all the movies in its vast repository.
In its coverage CNET cited the risk that most of BitTorrent's users are accustomed to free content, unencumbered by digital rights management (DRM). However, the site also noted that DRM may be losing traction with media companies -- in online music, recent events suggest that some companies are acknowledging that many consumers find DRM annoying and inconvenient.
Though it offers TV shows for purchase for $1.99 an episode, BitTorrent's new store only allows users to rent films. Movies can be downloaded within 30 days, but viewed only within 24 hours of that download. Older films will cost $2.99, while newer features are $3.99.
BitTorrent is a private entity, but it could become an interesting player in the budding digital video market, and may even help bring that market into the mainstream. Many traditional companies haven't yet figured out a way to make video downloads an inexpensive and convenient experience for consumers, the way Apple's iTunes opened up digital music sales. Peer-to-peer networks may have a bad reputation, but they've long been on the cutting edge of digital media delivery. Perhaps BitTorrent's foray into the legitimate e-commerce market will fare better than Napster's (Nasdaq: NAPS ) has -- and encourage better solutions across the board.
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Alyce Lomax does not own shares of any of the companies mentioned.