Last April, a pair of cousins named Bob Delamar and Jeremy Johnson became co-CEOs of BitTorrent. Delamar was a bearded Canadian Japanophile in his early forties; Johnson a network engineer from San Diego. Through an unusual financial arrangement, they represented a four-person group that had recently come to own a controlling stake in the company, and they had a plan to turn BitTorrent into, as Delamar was fond of saying publicly, “the next Netflix.” BitTorrent had already tried to be the next Netflix, starting long before Netflix had become the next Netflix. The company was founded in 2004 by Bram Cohen, inventor of the open-source protocol that lent the startup its name, and Ashwin Navin. BitTorrent — the protocol — was a genius way to transmit large amounts of information over the net by breaking it into small chunks, sending it through a peer-to-peer network, and reassembling it. BitTorrent — the company — got started on the assumption that Cohen was brilliant. He’d invented one of the web’s most fundamental tools, and surely there was a business to be made from it.
But from the start, BitTorrent had a branding problem — pirates used it to share movies illegally, making it the Napster of entertainment. Because the protocol was open-source, BitTorrent (the company) couldn’t stop the pirates. For 12 years, BitTorrent’s investors, executives and founders attempted to figure out many money-making strategies, including both enterprise software and entertainment businesses, while convincing us all that, sure, people might use the BitTorrent protocol to conduct illegal activity, but BitTorrent was just a tool — a really great tool you can use for really great things!
They’re right: 170 million people used the protocol every month, according to the company’s website. Facebook and Twitter use it to distribute updates to their servers. Florida State University has used it to distribute large scientific datasets to its researchers. Blizzard Entertainment has used BitTorrent to let players download World of Warcraft. The company’s site boasts that the protocol moves as much as 40 percent of the world’s Internet traffic each day.
But transforming this technology into any kind of business has proved elusive. By last spring, BitTorrent had already endeavored to become a media company, twice. There was BitTorrent Entertainment Network, launched in 2007, which was a storefront for movies and music that made no money and shut down a year later. And then there was the BitTorrent Bundle, launched in 2013, which was a competitor to iTunes and Amazon that let artists distribute their work directly to fans at a fraction the cost. In 2014, the company even announced plans to produce its own original series, a scifi show called Children of the Machine. But by early the next year, BitTorrent had given up on this strategy, too.
Some startups are born lucky. By the chance of their timing, their technology, or the individuals who helm them, they experience Facebook-size success. Others fail quickly. There is luck in this, too — in an immediate, concise conclusion. Far more startups, having raised funding on the merits of an idea and a team, plod along for years or even decades, constantly casting about for the idea or customer or partnership that will transform them. Their investors are patient, and then exhausted, and then checked out, and then impatient. Their executives change, and then change again. The founders leave, or they hang on in hopes the company they conceived will somehow eventually prove itself. They are zombie startups.
Such is the case with BitTorrent. It has remained a technology in search of a business for a dozen years. Then last year, Delamar and Johnson arrived with plans to save it once and for all. Instead, they squandered millions on failed schemes, putting the company on course for collapse.
I stumbled across this story while reporting Backchannel’s weekly Follow-up Friday piece, in which we step out of the knee-jerk news cycle to follow up on announcements and news events from previous years. I reached out to discover what had happened to Children of the Machine, the original series for which BitTorrent received accolades for announcing two years ago. When the company didn’t respond, I began asking others.
BitTorrent doesn’t want to talk about what happened last year. It made no executive available to answer questions. I pieced together the following narrative by speaking with current and former employees, investors and artists. Consider it a morality tale for discordant investors and entrepreneurs. It’s the story of the most recent dramatic and strange chapter in the life of one venture-backed company that has failed to succeed, but also hasn’t failed.
As a child on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Bram Cohen was smart, introverted, and strange. “I knew I was weird,” Cohen once told FORTUNE, explaining that he got frustrated trying to interact with other people. “I can really remember lots of stories in my life — things that it’s really obvious to me now what was going on, but I didn’t realize it back then because I didn’t understand people very well.” He graduated from Stuyvesant High School. But for all of his ability to focus, his grades were dismal. He attended the University of Buffalo, dropping out after two years.
Cohen has Asperger’s Syndrome, a condition about which he has always been very public. He disclosed his condition to an early investor, for example, during one of their earliest fundraising meetings. “It’s one of the first things he tells most people,” the investor told Bloomberg BusinessWeek in a 2008 profile. As a result, he’s not a handshaker. He doesn’t like wearing shoes. He’s not one for making small-talk.
In his mid 20s, having worked a string of dot-com jobs, Cohen spent the better part of nine months hunched over a Dell keyboard at his dining room table, consumed by a puzzle he could only solve by writing code and more code. He lived off his savings, and later credit cards. He felt certain he could figure out how to solve a puzzle that had stumped programmers since the start of the web — how to transfer massive files. The result, of course, was the open-source protocol BitTorrent.
In 2004, Cohen partnered with his younger brother, Ross Cohen, and Ashwin Navin, an alum of Goldman Sachs and Yahoo, to attempt to create a business around the protocol. They raised $8.75 million from Doll Capital Management (DCM). An early business plan was to establish a marketplace, like eBay, for creators to sell bandwidth-intensive content to consumers. They’d make money off it either through advertising or by charging these sellers a fee. The venture firm Accel led the company’s next round, in December 2006.
From the start, the company had personnel issues. Early on, Cohen’s brother, who had been in charge of the engineers, left. In 2007, Cohen ceded the CEO role to a short-lived outsider, moving into the newly created role of Chief Scientist (a title he has kept). In 2008, Eric Klinker, who was then chief technology officer, became BitTorrent’s CEO. Klinker possessed a rare combination of traits — he had the people skills to run the company, and he was sharp enough technically to win Cohen’s respect. (This was a particularly high bar.)
The original business idea didn’t take off, and for years the company cast about for promising alternatives. In 2008, having taken a third round of financing, the company admitted the business wasn’t “gaining significant traction” and agreed to recapitalize. It returned the $17 million to investors and instead raised just $7 million — from the same investors — at a significantly reduced valuation. It was a sign the company was in trouble. Navin left. And still, the company tried to make a go of it.
So went the life of BitTorrent. The company was headquartered in a gray office complex in San Francisco’s SOMA district. The executives tried strategies, hired people, experienced failures, and laid people off at regular intervals. A TechCrunch post from 2010 begins, “Hmm, BitTorrent…that’s still around?”
The latest chapter of BitTorrent’s saga begins in earnest in 2015. By then, many of the company’s executives and directors were exhausted. They still couldn’t agree on a path forward for the company. Some people believed it should double down on its technical business, building products people loved. They’d developed a product called Sync, for example, which was a decentralized version of Dropbox. Others wanted it to be an entertainment company, striking deals to send content to those people. With no focus, the company had reached an impasse. Earlier that year, BitTorrent had laid off nearly a third of its 150 employees. That’s when Accel’s Ping Li decided he wanted out. He’d been invested in BitTorrent since 2006, when he led a $20 million round of financing. Back then, he’d been excited about the company’s potential. But after a decade in which it had failed to hatch a venture-size business, he couldn’t see a path forward. Says Li, “We couldn’t get excited by any of the plans after ten years. We thought the best way to support them is to let them do what they do.” Also, BitTorrent was among the last outstanding investments in the Accel fund that had had an early stake in Facebook and Dropbox, among others — possibly the best performing venture fund of all times — and the firm was looking to wrap it up.
That’s when a group of investors offered to step in. They were familiar with BitTorrent because one of them, Jeremy Johnson, had been friendly with Klinker; the pair had worked together starting back in the late 1990s at the internet service provider [email protected], and had gone on to work on an Accel-backed routing startup together. By fall, the investors had obtained Accel’s stake in BitTorrent.
By venture norms, this was an unusual transaction. Here’s how it worked: Johnson and his cousin, Robert Delamar, teamed with two others to start an investment company called DJS Acquisitions. They had no money to offer up front, but they volunteered a $10 million promissory note in exchange for Accel’s stake in BitTorrent as well as DAG’s remaining stake in the company. (DAG was a minority shareholder, having first invested also in 2008.) The plan was that DJS would repay the note in a year.
It’s uncommon for an investment firm to exchange its shares for a promissory note. Why did this make sense for Accel and for BitTorrent? Well, for one, the DJS team articulated a plan for transforming BitTorrent into an entertainment company. Sure, it hadn’t worked before, but they showed up with new blood and new enthusiasm. Beyond that, it wasn’t clear Accel had other options. While some insiders said that Cohen had tried to buy parts of the company back himself, Accel’s Li didn’t feel there were other reasonable options on the table.
Regardless, the resulting transaction gave the DJS team, which had not actually invested any capital yet, a good deal of power in the company. DJS inherited two of the company’s five occupied board seats, replacing Ping and the partner from DAG with Johnson and Delamar. It owned more than 50 percent of the company’s preferred shares, according to four people with direct knowledge of the company’s corporate structure. In other words, DJS was in control.
The four members of the DJS team had eclectic backgrounds. Two had come up in engineering: Johnson and Raj Vaswani, cofounder of Silver Spring Networks. The other two are in business together at a Vancouver-based startup called Pacific Future Energy. Its goal is to build an oil refinery in British Columbia. Delamar, a lawyer by training, was chief executive of this endeavor and is now a senior advisor, and Samer Salameh is executive chairman. Within a few months of their arrival, Klinker resigned as CEO. The board appointed Delamar and Johnson as co-CEOs, and they were free to pursue their strategy of turning BitTorrent into a Hollywood behemoth. By June, BitTorrent had divorced its media and enterprise businesses, spinning its Sync product into a standalone company called Resilio. Klinker runs it. Today, Resilio offers freemium software for companies.
Meanwhile, Johnson and Delamar moved quickly to realize what they believed to be BitTorrent’s media opportunity. Delamar made plans to open an office in Los Angeles, and began commuting between LA and Vancouver, where he lived in a two-bedroom rental in the Shangri-La Hotel building. Meanwhile, Johnson opened an engineering office near his San Diego home. (Neither of them made it regularly to the company’s San Francisco headquarters, in a gray office complex just South of Market Street.)
They went on a hiring tear, boosting headcount by 26 percent between January and June, with most of the new hires in marketing and sales. They also brought in some of their own people as senior executives, a few of whom remained employed at Pacific Future Energy at the same time. Salameh, who is currently CEO and executive chairman of PFE, was paid a consulting fee by BitTorrent that totaled $154,000. Delamar, who remains a senior advisor to PFE, also hired Jeremy Friesen, who is PFE’s chief investment officer, as executive vice president of corporate development; Friesen worked for both companies simultaneously.
The pair moved quickly — at great expense — to spread the word in Hollywood and beyond that BitTorrent was a smart option for distributing movies and music, one that allowed artists to be in control of their distribution and had the potential to reach large audiences. They hired Missy Laney, who had managed Sundance Institute’s Artist Services Program, to help woo filmmakers. They relaunched their platform intended to let artists distribute their work directly to fans, calling it BitTorrent Now. They hired the son of a former CNN anchor to start an online news outlet. They launched the Discovery Fund, promising up to $100,000 in grants to 25 aspiring artists. They even paid a female motocross big truck driver, reportedly a friend of Johnson’s, $50,000 to plaster the company logo across the side of her truck.
Even as BitTorrent’s ad revenue was apparently declining, Delamar spent much of his time trying to convince Hollywood producers that BitTorrent could deliver massive audiences and profits for their creative work. In an August email to X-Men producer Tom DeSanto that he shared with the entire company, Delamar suggested a plan to generate a billion dollars for DeSanto’s next project by releasing it via BitTorrent, writing, “Our goal is to do something that has never been done before here with you.” In an email, DeSanto told me the talks didn’t go anywhere, writing: “Bob was very excited by my ideas but I have no plans right now to partner with bit torrent.”
By the end of the summer, it had become clear the strategy wasn’t working. The pair blew through more than a third of the company’s existing cash reserve, while revenues declined. BitTorrent had, for several years, maintained cash reserves of $33 million, give or take a few hundred thousand, according to financial documents shared with the board. By last July, the company had $14.9 million in cash, and forecasted ending the year with just more than $8 million in cash. The company had spent $10.1 million in the first six months of the year.
Amid all of these efforts Cohen had little sway — and little interaction with the rest of people at the company he had created to make something of his invention. His equity had been so diluted that he had little voice; the professional investors controlled 70 percent of BitTorrent. And within the company itself, Cohen had no direct reports. For the last few years, he has poured his energy into BitTorrent Live, a technically complex piece of software that allows people to broadcast live directly to viewers. Quietly, over the summer, after several years of development, the company released the app in beta.
In October 2016, a year after DJS struck its deal with Accel, the promissory note came due. DJS reportedly was unable to pay. DCM’s David Chao, the remaining venture investor, reportedly stepped in to pay the note, assuming control of their shares — and affording three board seats to DCM. BitTorrent fired its newly impotent co-CEOs. Today, the company’s chief financial officer, Dipak Joshi, is interim CEO. Both Delamar and Johnson have left the company. BitTorrent has shuttered its LA production studio and San Diego office, and laid off a larger number of its staffers. The Discovery Fund that announced grants to artists in August has finally sent an email to all applicants saying the program has been suspended. (“Sorry, Discovery fund has been scrapped out.”)
It’s unclear what’s ahead for the company. I did, however, finally track down the creator of Children of the Machine, Marco Weber, who told me he has finished writing the series and is currently shopping it in a more traditional manner. Anxious fans may one day get to see it after all, though likely not on BitTorrent.
Nearly everyone to whom I spoke had a different perspective on what had gone wrong at the startup. Infighting. Profligate spending. Strategic mistakes. But to a person, every last one agreed on one thing: the technology that Cohen invented was brilliant. Said one person, “It’s a testament to Bram’s genius that no one has yet built a better trap for moving this big data over bad networks.”
Perhaps the lesson here is that sometimes technologies are not products. And they’re not companies. They’re just damn good technologies. Vint Cerf did not land a Google-size fortune for having helped invent the TCP/IP protocols that power the Internet (though he did get the U.S. National Medal of Technology). What’s more, to be successful, a startup requires both a great idea for a product or service, and a great idea for how to make money off of it. One without the other will fail.
Then again, like so many other zombie startups littering Silicon Valley, BitTorrent is not dead yet. Just before the holidays, Cohen’s BitTorrent Live app debuted in the app store.
Rainberry, Inc., formerly known as BitTorrent, Inc., is an Americancompany that is responsible for the ongoing development of the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol, as well as the ongoing development of μTorrent and BitTorrent Mainline, two clients for that protocol. Files transferred using the BitTorrent protocol constitute a significant slice of all Internet traffic. At its peak, 170 million people used the protocol every month, according to the company's website. The company was founded on September 22, 2004 by Bram Cohen and Ashwin Navin. In 2018, the company was acquired by cryptocurrency startup TRON, and Bram Cohen left the company.
BitTorrent protocol software
Main articles: BitTorrent (software) and BitTorrent protocol
BitTorrent is a peer-to-peer computer program developed by Bram Cohen and BitTorrent, Inc. that is used for uploading and downloading files via the BitTorrent protocol. BitTorrent was the first client written for the protocol. It is often nicknamed Mainline by developers, denoting its official origins. Since version 6.0, the BitTorrent client has been a rebranded version of μTorrent. As a result, it is no longer open source and is currently available for Microsoft Windows and Mac OS X.
Main article: μTorrent
μTorrent (or uTorrent; commonly abbreviated as "μT" or "uT") is a freeware, closed sourceBitTorrent client owned by BitTorrent, Inc. It is the most widely used BitTorrent client outside China.
It is available for Microsoft Windows, Android and Mac OS X. A μTorrent Server is available for Linux. All versions are written in C++.
On December 7, 2006, μTorrent was purchased by BitTorrent, Inc., as it was announced on their official forum.
Pro is the name received by advanced versions, formerly branded Plus, of BitTorrent and μTorrent. These are premium versions of the Windows software with additional features that are downloaded and installed when the user upgrades for US$19.95. Pre-sales for Plus were announced November 29, 2011 and the upgrade became available December 8, 2011. A "Pro" version of uTorrent for Android also exists, for a lower initial price, though in-app purchases can take it over the cost of the desktop version.
When a user upgrades to the Pro version of BitTorrent or μTorrent they enable the following features:
- Anti-virus protection for acquired .torrent files
- Integrated HD media player
- Transcoding capability with media codecs
- Streaming playback while torrent is downloading
Main article: Resilio Sync
BitTorrent Sync is a peer-to-peer file synchronization tool running on Windows, Mac, and Linux. It can sync files between computers on a local network, or between remote users over the Internet.
The BitTorrent Sync pre-Alpha program, announced in January 2013, was opened to general users on April 23, 2013. On November 23, 2013, BitTorrent announced the release of version 1.2 of the client along with a beta version of the BitTorrent Sync API.
On June 1, 2016, product and team were spun out of BitTorrent Inc. as an independent company, Resilio Inc. which will continue development of the product under the name Resilio Sync.
The company has released "Bundles" with artists such as Linkin Park, Pixies, Public Enemy, and Madonna. The Madonna Bundle, entitled secretprojectrevolution, was released on September 24, 2013 and consisted of the 17-minute film of the same name, stills from the film, and an option for those users who submit their email addresses and make a donation that also includes HD and 2K versions of the film, a VICE interview, and a message from Madonna.
On September 17, 2013, the company launched "BitTorrent Bundles for Publishers", an alpha program for content creators to distribute bundles of any size and file type using the BitTorrent client. The first released bundle was the fantasy feature film "Overturn: Awakening of the Warrior" starring Ukrainian Vietnamese actor Ivan Doan
On September 26, 2014, Thom Yorke released his album Tomorrow's Modern Boxes as the first paid Bundle, priced at US$6.00. On October 3, 2014, it was announced that the project had been downloaded over 1 million times, which included the free single and video plus the paid downloads; sales numbers have not been released.
On October 28, 2014, Alice in Chains released their music video for "Phantom Limb" via BitTorrent Bundle for free streaming and download. The bundle also included the video treatment and the shot list in PDF, as well as access to the band's merch.
BitTorrent, Inc. also offers BitTorrent DNA (Delivery Network Accelerator), a free content delivery service based on the BitTorrent protocol that allows content providers to distribute their content using the bandwidth of their users.
On January 5, 2012, SoShare was released in alpha as "Share" within the μTorrent client, as a standalone desktop client and as a plug-in based web client. On February 15, 2013, the SoShare beta was launched and repositioned as a user-friendly web application that uses the BitTorrent protocol, designed for creative industry professionals to share high-res photos, files and videos using the app's email system or public links. From the official website, the service messages that registered users can send file bundles containing up to one terabyte of data per send, free.
First announced in September 2011 and was first publicly tested on October 14, 2011. BitTorrent premiered Live in public beta in March 2013. The platform was used to showcase live streaming events of musical acts and DJs. It was shut down in 2017. In March 2019 it was announced that BitTorrent Live is going to return in the form of Snapchat-like social media app for Android and iOS.
BitTorrent Bleep is a multi-platform, peer-to-peer, serverless chat client available free on Windows, Mac, Android and iOS. Bleep was never officially discontinued, but as of August 2017 the website no longer exists, the Windows application is no longer available to download from their website, or on the Google Play store, the Bleep Blog hasn't been updated since August 2015, and the Bleep forums no longer have any active moderators participating.
On December 10, 2014, BitTorrent announced Project Maelstrom, a Chromium-based browser project that enables censorship-resistant distributedWeb publishing by utilizing the BitTorrent and DHT protocols. Initially, the project was run as a closed alpha, but was then opened as a public beta available for Windows only. Although no official discontinue notice has been announced as of February 2017, the BitTorrent Inc. website no longer provides the browser for download, the last build has not been updated past Chromium version 44, and the last post by the project lead staff was on September 14, 2015.
Main article: DLive
In late 2019, BitTorrent purchased DLive, which was created in 2017 as a blockchain-based video game streaming platform with lax moderation and generous monetization plans. Around this time, DLive became popular with far-right extremists and conspiracy theorists who had been banned from other platforms. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "DLive has paid out hundreds of thousands of dollars to extremists since its founding, largely through donations of cryptocurrency built into a service provided by the site." DLive was used by multiple creators to stream and coordinate the 2021 storming of the United States Capitol. Several of these streamers were subsequently banned by DLive.
According to the company's website, BitTorrent Inc. has announced partnerships with many companies, including, for venture capital, Accel Partners and DCM, technology partners ESA Flash Components, NTL:Telewest, Opera Software, and device partners Buffalo Technology, D-Link, I-O Data, Marvell Semiconductors, Netgear, Planex Communications Inc., and QNAP Systems, Inc.
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Peer-to-peer file sharing protocol
This article is about the file sharing protocol. For other uses, see BitTorrent (disambiguation).
BitTorrent is a communication protocol for peer-to-peer file sharing (P2P), which enables users to distribute data and electronic files over the Internet in a decentralized manner.
To send or receive files, a person uses a BitTorrent client on their Internet-connected computer. A BitTorrent client is a computer program that implements the BitTorrent protocol. BitTorrent clients are available for a variety of computing platforms and operating systems, including an official client released by BitTorrent, Inc. Popular clients include μTorrent, Xunlei Thunder,Transmission, qBittorrent, Vuze, Deluge, BitComet and Tixati. BitTorrent trackers provide a list of files available for transfer and allow the client to find peer users, known as "seeds", who may transfer the files.
Programmer Bram Cohen, a University at Buffalo alumnus, designed the protocol in April 2001, and released the first available version on 2 July 2001. As of June 2020[update], the most recent version was implemented in 2017. On 15 May 2017, an update to the protocol specification was released by BitTorrent, called BitTorrent v2. libtorrent was updated to support the new version on 6 September 2020.
BitTorrent is one of the most common protocols for transferring large files, such as digital video files containing TV shows and video clips, or digital audio files containing songs. P2P networks were estimated to, collectively, account for approximately 43% to 70% of Internet traffic depending on location, as of February 2009[update]. In February 2013, BitTorrent was responsible for 3.35% of all worldwide bandwidth—more than half of the 6% of total bandwidth dedicated to file sharing. In 2019, BitTorrent was a dominant file sharing protocol and generated a substantial amount of Internet traffic, with 2.46% of downstream, and 27.58% of upstream traffic. As of 2013[update], BitTorrent has 15–27 million concurrent users at any time. As of January 2012[update], BitTorrent is utilized by 150 million active users. Based on this figure, the total number of monthly users may be estimated to more than a quarter of a billion (≈ 250 million).
The use of BitTorrent may sometimes be limited by Internet Service Providers (ISPs), on legal or copyright grounds. In turn, users may choose to run seedboxes or Virtual Private Networks (VPNs) as an alternative.
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Programmer Bram Cohen, a University at Buffalo alumnus, designed the protocol in April 2001, and released the first available version on 2 July 2001.
The first release of the BitTorrent client had no search engine and no peer exchange. Up until 2005, the only way to share files was by creating a small text file called a "torrent", that they would upload to a torrent index site. The first uploader acted as a seed, and downloaders would initially connect as peers. Those who wish to download the file would download the torrent, which their client would use to connect to a tracker which had a list of the IP addresses of other seeds and peers in the swarm. Once a peer completed a download of the complete file, it could in turn function as a seed. These files contain metadata about the files to be shared and the trackers which keep track of the other seeds and peers.
In 2005, first Vuze and then the BitTorrent client introduced distributed tracking using distributed hash tables which allowed clients to exchange data on swarms directly without the need for a torrent file.
In 2006, peer exchange functionality was added allowing clients to add peers based on the data found on connected nodes.
BitTorrent v2 is intended to work seamlessly with previous versions of the BitTorrent protocol. The main reason for the update was that the old cryptographic hash function, SHA-1 is no longer considered safe from malicious attacks by the developers, and as such, v2 uses SHA-256. To ensure backwards compatibility, the v2 .torrent file format supports a hybrid mode where the torrents are hashed through both the new method and the old method, with the intent that the files will be shared with peers on both v1 and v2 swarms. Another update to the specification is adding a hash tree to speed up time from adding a torrent to downloading files, and to allow more granular checks for file corruption. In addition, each file is now hashed individually, enabling files in the swarm to be deduplicated, so that if multiple torrents include the same files, but seeders are only seeding the file from some, downloaders of the other torrents can still download the file. Magnet links for v2 also support a hybrid mode to ensure support for legacy clients.
The BitTorrent protocol can be used to reduce the server and network impact of distributing large files. Rather than downloading a file from a single source server, the BitTorrent protocol allows users to join a "swarm" of hosts to upload and download from each other simultaneously. The protocol is an alternative to the older single source, multiple mirror sources technique for distributing data, and can work effectively over networks with lower bandwidth. Using the BitTorrent protocol, several basic computers, such as home computers, can replace large servers while efficiently distributing files to many recipients. This lower bandwidth usage also helps prevent large spikes in internet traffic in a given area, keeping internet speeds higher for all users in general, regardless of whether or not they use the BitTorrent protocol.
The file being distributed is divided into segments called pieces. As each peer receives a new piece of the file, it becomes a source (of that piece) for other peers, relieving the original seed from having to send that piece to every computer or user wishing a copy. With BitTorrent, the task of distributing the file is shared by those who want it; it is entirely possible for the seed to send only a single copy of the file itself and eventually distribute to an unlimited number of peers. Each piece is protected by a cryptographic hash contained in the torrent descriptor. This ensures that any modification of the piece can be reliably detected, and thus prevents both accidental and malicious modifications of any of the pieces received at other nodes. If a node starts with an authentic copy of the torrent descriptor, it can verify the authenticity of the entire file it receives.
Pieces are typically downloaded non-sequentially, and are rearranged into the correct order by the BitTorrent client, which monitors which pieces it needs, and which pieces it has and can upload to other peers. Pieces are of the same size throughout a single download (for example, a 10 MB file may be transmitted as ten 1 MB pieces or as forty 256 KB pieces). Due to the nature of this approach, the download of any file can be halted at any time and be resumed at a later date, without the loss of previously downloaded information, which in turn makes BitTorrent particularly useful in the transfer of larger files. This also enables the client to seek out readily available pieces and download them immediately, rather than halting the download and waiting for the next (and possibly unavailable) piece in line, which typically reduces the overall time of the download. This eventual transition from peers to seeders determines the overall "health" of the file (as determined by the number of times a file is available in its complete form).
The distributed nature of BitTorrent can lead to a flood-like spreading of a file throughout many peer computer nodes. As more peers join the swarm, the likelihood of a successful download by any particular node increases. Relative to traditional Internet distribution schemes, this permits a significant reduction in the original distributor's hardware and bandwidth resource costs. Distributed downloading protocols in general provide redundancy against system problems, reduce dependence on the original distributor, and provide sources for the file which are generally transient and therefore there is no single point of failure as in one way server-client transfers.
Though both ultimately transfer files over a network, a BitTorrent download differs from a one way server-client download (as is typical with an HTTP or FTP request, for example) in several fundamental ways:
- BitTorrent makes many small data requests over different IP connections to different machines, while server-client downloading is typically made via a single TCP connection to a single machine.
- BitTorrent downloads in a random or in a "rarest-first" approach that ensures high availability, while classic downloads are sequential.
Taken together, these differences allow BitTorrent to achieve much lower cost to the content provider, much higher redundancy, and much greater resistance to abuse or to "flash crowds" than regular server software. However, this protection, theoretically, comes at a cost: downloads can take time to rise to full speed because it may take time for enough peer connections to be established, and it may take time for a node to receive sufficient data to become an effective uploader. This contrasts with regular downloads (such as from an HTTP server, for example) that, while more vulnerable to overload and abuse, rise to full speed very quickly, and maintain this speed throughout. In the beginning, BitTorrent's non-contiguous download methods made it harder to support "streaming playback". In 2014, the client Popcorn Time allowed for streaming of BitTorrent video files. Since then, more and more clients are offering streaming options.
The BitTorrent protocol provides no way to index torrent files. As a result, a comparatively small number of websites have hosted a large majority of torrents, many linking to copyrighted works without the authorization of copyright holders, rendering those sites especially vulnerable to lawsuits. A BitTorrent index is a "list of .torrent files, which typically includes descriptions" and information about the torrent's content. Several types of websites support the discovery and distribution of data on the BitTorrent network. Public torrent-hosting sites such as The Pirate Bay allow users to search and download from their collection of torrent files. Users can typically also upload torrent files for content they wish to distribute. Often, these sites also run BitTorrent trackers for their hosted torrent files, but these two functions are not mutually dependent: a torrent file could be hosted on one site and tracked by another unrelated site. Private host/tracker sites operate like public ones except that they may restrict access to registered users and may also keep track of the amount of data each user uploads and downloads, in an attempt to reduce "leeching".
Web search engines allow the discovery of torrent files that are hosted and tracked on other sites; examples include The Pirate Bay and BTDigg. These sites allow the user to ask for content meeting specific criteria (such as containing a given word or phrase) and retrieve a list of links to torrent files matching those criteria. This list can often be sorted with respect to several criteria, relevance (seeders-leechers ratio) being one of the most popular and useful (due to the way the protocol behaves, the download bandwidth achievable is very sensitive to this value). Metasearch engines allow one to search several BitTorrent indices and search engines at once.
The Tribler BitTorrent client was among the first to incorporate built-in search capabilities. With Tribler, users can find .torrent files held by random peers and taste buddies. It adds such an ability to the BitTorrent protocol using a gossip protocol, somewhat similar to the eXeem network which was shut down in 2005. The software includes the ability to recommend content as well. After a dozen downloads, the Tribler software can roughly estimate the download taste of the user, and recommend additional content.
In May 2007, researchers at Cornell University published a paper proposing a new approach to searching a peer-to-peer network for inexact strings, which could replace the functionality of a central indexing site. A year later, the same team implemented the system as a plugin for Vuze called Cubit and published a follow-up paper reporting its success.
A somewhat similar facility but with a slightly different approach is provided by the BitComet client through its "Torrent Exchange" feature. Whenever two peers using BitComet (with Torrent Exchange enabled) connect to each other they exchange lists of all the torrents (name and info-hash) they have in the Torrent Share storage (torrent files which were previously downloaded and for which the user chose to enable sharing by Torrent Exchange). Thus each client builds up a list of all the torrents shared by the peers it connected to in the current session (or it can even maintain the list between sessions if instructed).
At any time the user can search into that Torrent Collection list for a certain torrent and sort the list by categories. When the user chooses to download a torrent from that list, the .torrent file is automatically searched for (by info-hash value) in the DHT Network and when found it is downloaded by the querying client which can after that create and initiate a downloading task.
Downloading and sharing
Users find a torrent of interest on a torrent index site or by using a search engine built into the client, download it, and open it with a BitTorrent client. The client connects to the tracker(s) or seeds specified in the torrent file, from which it receives a list of seeds and peers currently transferring pieces of the file(s). The client connects to those peers to obtain the various pieces. If the swarm contains only the initial seeder, the client connects directly to it, and begins to request pieces. Clients incorporate mechanisms to optimize their download and upload rates.
The effectiveness of this data exchange depends largely on the policies that clients use to determine to whom to send data. Clients may prefer to send data to peers that send data back to them (a "tit for tat" exchange scheme), which encourages fair trading. But strict policies often result in suboptimal situations, such as when newly joined peers are unable to receive any data because they don't have any pieces yet to trade themselves or when two peers with a good connection between them do not exchange data simply because neither of them takes the initiative. To counter these effects, the official BitTorrent client program uses a mechanism called "optimistic unchoking", whereby the client reserves a portion of its available bandwidth for sending pieces to random peers (not necessarily known good partners, so called preferred peers) in hopes of discovering even better partners and to ensure that newcomers get a chance to join the swarm.
Although "swarming" scales well to tolerate "flash crowds" for popular content, it is less useful for unpopular or niche market content. Peers arriving after the initial rush might find the content unavailable and need to wait for the arrival of a "seed" in order to complete their downloads. The seed arrival, in turn, may take long to happen (this is termed the "seeder promotion problem"). Since maintaining seeds for unpopular content entails high bandwidth and administrative costs, this runs counter to the goals of publishers that value BitTorrent as a cheap alternative to a client-server approach. This occurs on a huge scale; measurements have shown that 38% of all new torrents become unavailable within the first month. A strategy adopted by many publishers which significantly increases availability of unpopular content consists of bundling multiple files in a single swarm. More sophisticated solutions have also been proposed; generally, these use cross-torrent mechanisms through which multiple torrents can cooperate to better share content.
Creating and publishing
The peer distributing a data file treats the file as a number of identically sized pieces, usually with byte sizes of a power of 2, and typically between 32 kB and 16 MB each. The peer creates a hash for each piece, using the SHA-1 hash function, and records it in the torrent file. Pieces with sizes greater than 512 kB will reduce the size of a torrent file for a very large payload, but is claimed to reduce the efficiency of the protocol. When another peer later receives a particular piece, the hash of the piece is compared to the recorded hash to test that the piece is error-free. Peers that provide a complete file are called seeders, and the peer providing the initial copy is called the initial seeder. The exact information contained in the torrent file depends on the version of the BitTorrent protocol.
By convention, the name of a torrent file has the suffix . Torrent files have an "announce" section, which specifies the URL of the tracker, and an "info" section, containing (suggested) names for the files, their lengths, the piece length used, and a SHA-1hash code for each piece, all of which are used by clients to verify the integrity of the data they receive. Though SHA-1 has shown signs of cryptographic weakness, Bram Cohen did not initially consider the risk big enough for a backward incompatible change to, for example, SHA-3. As of BitTorrent v2 the hash function has been updated to SHA-256.
In the early days, torrent files were typically published to torrent index websites, and registered with at least one tracker. The tracker maintained lists of the clients currently connected to the swarm. Alternatively, in a trackerless system (decentralized tracking) every peer acts as a tracker. Azureus was the first BitTorrent client to implement such a system through the distributed hash table (DHT) method. An alternative and incompatible DHT system, known as Mainline DHT, was released in the Mainline BitTorrent client three weeks later (though it had been in development since 2002) and subsequently adopted by the μTorrent, Transmission, rTorrent, KTorrent, BitComet, and Deluge clients.
After the DHT was adopted, a "private" flag – analogous to the broadcast flag – was unofficially introduced, telling clients to restrict the use of decentralized tracking regardless of the user's desires. The flag is intentionally placed in the info section of the torrent so that it cannot be disabled or removed without changing the identity of the torrent. The purpose of the flag is to prevent torrents from being shared with clients that do not have access to the tracker. The flag was requested for inclusion in the official specification in August 2008, but has not been accepted yet. Clients that have ignored the private flag were banned by many trackers, discouraging the practice.
BitTorrent does not, on its own, offer its users anonymity. One can usually see the IP addresses of all peers in a swarm in one's own client or firewall program. This may expose users with insecure systems to attacks. In some countries, copyright organizations scrape lists of peers, and send takedown notices to the internet service provider of users participating in the swarms of files that are under copyright. In some jurisdictions, copyright holders may launch lawsuits against uploaders or downloaders for infringement, and police may arrest suspects in such cases.
Various means have been used to promote anonymity. For example, the BitTorrent client Tribler makes available a Tor-like onion network, optionally routing transfers through other peers to obscure which client has requested the data. The exit node would be visible to peers in a swarm, but the Tribler organization provides exit nodes. One advantage of Tribler is that clearnet torrents can be downloaded with only a small decrease in download speed from one "hop" of routing.
i2p provides a similar anonymity layer although in that case, one can only download torrents that have been uploaded to the i2p network. The bittorrent client Vuze allows users who are not concerned about anonymity to take clearnet torrents, and make them available on the i2p network.
Most BitTorrent clients are not designed to provide anonymity when used over Tor, and there is some debate as to whether torrenting over Tor acts as a drag on the network.
Private torrent trackers are usually invitation only, and require members to participate in uploading, but have the downside of a single centralized point of failure. Oink's Pink Palace and What.cd are examples of private trackers which have been shut down.
Seedbox services download the torrent files first to the company's servers, allowing the user to direct download the file from there. One's IP address would be visible to the Seedbox provider, but not to third parties.
Virtual private networks encrypt transfers, and substitute a different IP address for the user's, so that anyone monitoring a torrent swarm will only see that address.
On 2 May 2005, Azureus 18.104.22.168 (now known as Vuze) was released, introducing support for "trackerless" torrents through a system called the "distributed database." This system is a Distributed hash table implementation which allows the client to use torrents that do not have a working BitTorrent tracker. Instead just bootstrapping server is used (router.bittorrent.com, dht.transmissionbt.com or router.utorrent.com). The following month, BitTorrent, Inc. released version 4.2.0 of the Mainline BitTorrent client, which supported an alternative DHT implementation (popularly known as "Mainline DHT", outlined in a draft on their website) that is incompatible with that of Azureus. In 2014, measurement showed concurrent users of Mainline DHT to be from 10 million to 25 million, with a daily churn of at least 10 million.
Current versions of the official BitTorrent client, μTorrent, BitComet, Transmission and BitSpirit all share compatibility with Mainline DHT. Both DHT implementations are based on Kademlia. As of version 22.214.171.124, Azureus also supports Mainline DHT in addition to its own distributed database through use of an optional application plugin. This potentially allows the Azureus/Vuze client to reach a bigger swarm.
Another idea that has surfaced in Vuze is that of virtual torrents. This idea is based on the distributed tracker approach and is used to describe some web resource. Currently, it is used for instant messaging. It is implemented using a special messaging protocol and requires an appropriate plugin. Anatomic P2P is another approach, which uses a decentralized network of nodes that route traffic to dynamic trackers. Most BitTorrent clients also use Peer exchange (PEX) to gather peers in addition to trackers and DHT. Peer exchange checks with known peers to see if they know of any other peers. With the 126.96.36.199 release of Vuze, all major BitTorrent clients now have compatible peer exchange.
Web "seeding" was implemented in 2006 as the ability of BitTorrent clients to download torrent pieces from an HTTP source in addition to the "swarm". The advantage of this feature is that a website may distribute a torrent for a particular file or batch of files and make those files available for download from that same web server; this can simplify long-term seeding and load balancing through the use of existing, cheap, web hosting setups. In theory, this would make using BitTorrent almost as easy for a web publisher as creating a direct HTTP download. In addition, it would allow the "web seed" to be disabled if the swarm becomes too popular while still allowing the file to be readily available. This feature has two distinct specifications, both of which are supported by Libtorrent and the 26+ clients that use it.
The first was created by John "TheSHAD0W" Hoffman, who created BitTornado. This first specification requires running a web service that serves content by info-hash and piece number, rather than filename.
The other specification is created by GetRight authors and can rely on a basic HTTP download space (using byte serving).
In September 2010, a new service named Burnbit was launched which generates a torrent from any URL using webseeding. There are server-side solutions that provide initial seeding of the file from the web server via standard BitTorrent protocol and when the number of external seeders reach a limit, they stop serving the file from the original source.
Main article: Broadcatching
A technique called broadcatching combines RSS feeds with the BitTorrent protocol to create a content delivery system, further simplifying and automating content distribution. Steve Gillmor explained the concept in a column for Ziff-Davis in December 2003. The discussion spread quickly among bloggers (Ernest Miller,Chris Pirillo, etc.). In an article entitled Broadcatching with BitTorrent, Scott Raymond explained:
I want RSS feeds of BitTorrent files. A script would periodically check the feed for new items, and use them to start the download. Then, I could find a trusted publisher of an Alias RSS feed, and "subscribe" to all new episodes of the show, which would then start downloading automatically – like the "season pass" feature of the TiVo.
— Scott Raymond, scottraymond.net
The RSS feed will track the content, while BitTorrent ensures content integrity with cryptographichashing of all data, so feed subscribers will receive uncorrupted content. One of the first and popular software clients (free and open source) for broadcatching is Miro. Other free software clients such as PenguinTV and KatchTV are also now supporting broadcatching. The BitTorrent web-service MoveDigital added the ability to make torrents available to any web application capable of parsing XML through its standard REST-based interface in 2006, though this has since been discontinued. Additionally, Torrenthut is developing a similar torrent API that will provide the same features, and help bring the torrent community to Web 2.0 standards. Alongside this release is a first PHP application built using the API called PEP, which will parse any Really Simple Syndication (RSS 2.0) feed and automatically create and seed a torrent for each enclosure found in that feed.
Throttling and encryption
Main article: BitTorrent protocol encryption
Since BitTorrent makes up a large proportion of total traffic, some ISPs have chosen to "throttle" (slow down) BitTorrent transfers. For this reason, methods have been developed to disguise BitTorrent traffic in an attempt to thwart these efforts. Protocol header encrypt (PHE) and Message stream encryption/Protocol encryption (MSE/PE) are features of some BitTorrent clients that attempt to make BitTorrent hard to detect and throttle. As of November 2015, Vuze, Bitcomet, KTorrent, Transmission, Deluge, μTorrent, MooPolice, Halite, qBittorrent, rTorrent, and the latest official BitTorrent client (v6) support MSE/PE encryption.
In August 2007, Comcast was preventing BitTorrent seeding by monitoring and interfering with the communication between peers. Protection against these efforts is provided by proxying the client-tracker traffic via an encrypted tunnel to a point outside of the Comcast network. In 2008, Comcast called a "truce" with BitTorrent, Inc. with the intention of shaping traffic in a protocol-agnostic manner. Questions about the ethics and legality of Comcast's behavior have led to renewed debate about net neutrality in the United States. In general, although encryption can make it difficult to determine what is being shared, BitTorrent is vulnerable to traffic analysis. Thus, even with MSE/PE, it may be possible for an ISP to recognize BitTorrent and also to determine that a system is no longer downloading but only uploading data, and terminate its connection by injecting TCP RST (reset flag) packets.
Another unofficial feature is an extension to the BitTorrent metadata format proposed by John Hoffman and implemented by several indexing websites. It allows the use of multiple trackers per file, so if one tracker fails, others can continue to support file transfer. It is implemented in several clients, such as BitComet, BitTornado, BitTorrent, KTorrent, Transmission, Deluge, μTorrent, rtorrent, Vuze, and Frostwire. Trackers are placed in groups, or tiers, with a tracker randomly chosen from the top tier and tried, moving to the next tier if all the trackers in the top tier fail.
Torrents with multiple trackers can decrease the time it takes to download a file, but also have a few consequences:
- Poorly implemented clients may contact multiple trackers, leading to more overhead-traffic.
- Torrents from closed trackers suddenly become downloadable by non-members, as they can connect to a seed via an open tracker.
As of December 2008[update], BitTorrent, Inc. was working with Oversi on new Policy Discover Protocols that query the ISP for capabilities and network architecture information. Oversi's ISP hosted NetEnhancer box is designed to "improve peer selection" by helping peers find local nodes, improving download speeds while reducing the loads into and out of the ISP's network.
Main article: Comparison of BitTorrent clients
The BitTorrent specification is free to use and many clients are open source, so BitTorrent clients have been created for all common operating systems using a variety of programming languages. The official BitTorrent client, μTorrent, qBittorrent, Transmission, Vuze, and BitComet are some of the most popular clients.
Some BitTorrent implementations such as MLDonkey and Torrentflux are designed to run as servers. For example, this can be used to centralize file sharing on a single dedicated server which users share access to on the network. Server-oriented BitTorrent implementations can also be hosted by hosting providers at co-located facilities with high bandwidth Internet connectivity (e.g., a datacenter) which can provide dramatic speed benefits over using BitTorrent from a regular home broadband connection. Services such as ImageShack can download files on BitTorrent for the user, allowing them to download the entire file by HTTP once it is finished.
The Operaweb browser supports BitTorrent, as does Wyzo and Brave.BitLet allows users to download Torrents directly from their browser using a Java applet. An increasing number of hardware devices are being made to support BitTorrent. These include routers and NAS devices containing BitTorrent-capable firmware like OpenWrt. Proprietary versions of the protocol which implement DRM, encryption, and authentication are found within managed clients such as Pando.
A growing number of individuals and organizations are using BitTorrent to distribute their own or licensed works (e.g. indie bands distributing digital files of their new songs). Independent adopters report that without using BitTorrent technology, and its dramatically reduced demands on their private networking hardware and bandwidth, they could not afford to distribute their files.
Some uses of BitTorrent for file sharing may violate laws in some jurisdictions (see legal issues section).
Film, video, and music
- BitTorrent Inc. has obtained a number of licenses from Hollywood studios for distributing popular content from their websites.
- Sub Pop Records releases tracks and videos via BitTorrent Inc. to distribute its 1000+ albums. Babyshambles and The Libertines (both bands associated with Pete Doherty) have extensively used torrents to distribute hundreds of demos and live videos. US industrial rock band Nine Inch Nails frequently distributes albums via BitTorrent.
- Podcasting software is starting to integrate BitTorrent to help podcasters deal with the download demands of their MP3 "radio" programs. Specifically, Juice and Miro (formerly known as Democracy Player) support automatic processing of .torrent files from RSS feeds. Similarly, some BitTorrent clients, such as μTorrent, are able to process web feeds and automatically download content found within them.
- DGM Live purchases are provided via BitTorrent.
- VODO, a service which distributes "free-to-share" movies and TV shows via BitTorrent.
Cloud Service Providers
- The Amazon AWS's Simple Storage Service (S3), until April 29, 2021, had supported sharing of bucket objects with BitTorrent protocols. As of June 13, 2020, the feature is only available in service regions launched after May 30, 2016. The feature for the existing customers will be extended for an additional 12 months following the deprecation. After April 29, 2022, BitTorrent clients will no longer connect to Amazon S3.
- Blizzard Entertainment uses BitTorrent (via a proprietary client called the "Blizzard Downloader", associated with the Blizzard "BattleNet" network) to distribute content and patches for Diablo III, StarCraft II and World of Warcraft, including the games themselves.
- Wargaming uses BitTorrent in their popular titles World of Tanks, World of Warships and World of Warplanes to distribute game updates.
- CCP Games, maker of the space Simulation MMORPG Eve Online, has announced that a new launcher will be released that is based on BitTorrent.
- Many software games, especially those whose large size makes them difficult to host due to bandwidth limits, extremely frequent downloads, and unpredictable changes in network traffic, will distribute instead a specialized, stripped down bittorrent client with enough functionality to download the game from the other running clients and the primary server (which is maintained in case not enough peers are available).
- Many major open source and free software projects encourage BitTorrent as well as conventional downloads of their products (via HTTP, FTP etc.) to increase availability and to reduce load on their own servers, especially when dealing with larger files.
As of 2011[update], BitTorrent had 100 million users and a greater share of network bandwidth than Netflix and Hulu combined. In early 2015, AT&T estimates that BitTorrent represents 20% of all broadband traffic.
Routers that use network address translation (NAT) must maintain tables of source and destination IP addresses and ports. Typical home routers are limited to about 2000 table entries while some more expensive routers have larger table capacities. BitTorrent frequently contacts 20–30 servers per second, rapidly filling the NAT tables. This is a known cause of some home routers ceasing to work correctly.
Main article: Legal issues with BitTorrent
Although the protocol itself is legal, problems stem from using the protocol to traffic copyright infringing works, since BitTorrent is often used to download otherwise paid content, such as movies and video games. There has been much controversy over the use of BitTorrent trackers. BitTorrent metafiles themselves do not store file contents. Whether the publishers of BitTorrent metafiles violate copyrights by linking to copyrighted works without the authorization of copyright holders is controversial. Various jurisdictions have pursued legal action against websites that host BitTorrent trackers.
High-profile examples include the closing of Suprnova.org, TorrentSpy, LokiTorrent, BTJunkie, Mininova, Oink's Pink Palace and What.cd. The Pirate Bay torrent website, formed by a Swedish group, is noted for the "legal" section of its website in which letters and replies on the subject of alleged copyright infringements are publicly displayed. On 31 May 2006, The Pirate Bay's servers in Sweden were raided by Swedish police on allegations by the MPAA of copyright infringement; however, the tracker was up and running again three days later. In the study used to value NBC Universal in its merger with Comcast, Envisional examined the 10,000 torrent swarms managed by PublicBT which had the most active downloaders. After excluding pornographic and unidentifiable content, it was found that only one swarm offered legitimate content.
In the United States, more than 200,000 lawsuits have been filed for copyright infringement on BitTorrent since 2010. In the United Kingdom, on 30 April 2012, the High Court of Justice ordered five ISPs to block BitTorrent search engine The Pirate Bay. (see List of websites blocked in the United Kingdom)
One concern is the UDP flood attack. BitTorrent implementations often use μTP for their communication. To achieve high bandwidths, the underlying protocol used is UDP, which allows spoofing of source addresses of internet traffic. It has been possible to carry out Denial-of-service attacks in a P2P lab environment, where users running BitTorrent clients act as amplifiers for an attack at another service. However this is not always an effective attack because ISPs can check if the source address is correct.
Several studies on BitTorrent found files available for download containing malware. In particular, one small sample indicated that 18% of all executable programs available for download contained malware. Another study claims that as much as 14.5% of BitTorrent downloads contain zero-day malware, and that BitTorrent was used as the distribution mechanism for 47% of all zero-day malware they have found.
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