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How a company made infamous by piracy is trying to reinvent itself

‘There was a while when folks didn’t even realise we were a company.’

RIGHTLY OR WRONGLY, BitTorrent’s image problems aren’t going away.

Over more than a decade, the name has become a byword for internet piracy and as recently as August the US record industry was publicly blaming its technology for being behind the continued wholesale illegal downloading of music.

In the past few years, however, the company behind the controversial peer-to-peer file transfer system has been going on a public-relations drive in an attempt to seize back the BitTorrent ‘brand’ from its detractors.

This month, representatives from the 10-year-old tech firm were at the Web Summit to push its credentials as an artist-friendly way of distributing music and other material.

“(BitTorrent) is one of the most-loved brands on the internet, it’s very recognisable, but as a company of engineers we probably haven’t done a great job of owning our brand,” the company’s head of brand and communications, Christian Averill, told TheJournal.ie.

Others have certainly defined what BitTorrent can mean … in the past three or four years there has been a very concerted effort to reclaim that back.”

Screen Shot 2015-11-14 at 12.46.21 BitTorrent's Christian Averill Source: YouTube

A bad reputation

At the root of BitTorrent’s bad reputation are so-called clients, programmes like the company’s own uTorrent which use the freely available code its founder Bram Cohen first released in 2001 to carry out data transfers.

Fourteen years on, the system remains the most popular internet-wide for peer-to-peer exchanges – ephemeral networks through which computers connect directly with one another, rather than via a central server that stores files, making them a fertile and elusive conduit for pirates.

In the late 2000s, BitTorrent clients accounted for about one-third of all internet traffic in the US, although the share has dropped significantly with the rise of data-hungry video-streaming services like Netflix and YouTube.

report out last year from Digital Citizens Alliance, a coalition of various interest groups, said sites based on BitTorrent distribution systems were “synonymous with content theft”.

A TORRENT OF BITS BitTorrent creator Bram Cohen in 2004 Source: Associated Press

But while the name is invariably linked to sites like The Pirate Bay, where users can accessing all forms of illegal downloads as easily as browsing the supermarket shelves, BitTorrent is at pains to distance itself from those platforms.

“The word for certain audiences has become a euphemism for piracy and it’s really important to understand that we have no affiliation with those entities that are pirating or moving pirated content,” Averill said.

They use an open-source version of BitTorrent as the back-end. So The Pirate Bay is The Pirate Bay, it’s nothing to do with BitTorrent.”

BitTorrent Download A BitTorrent download Source: nrkbeta

Privacy and artists

Instead, the company has begun to more-proactively present itself in a different light – as a champion of online privacy, as well as for the creative industries.

That has been helped in no small part by leaks from former National Security Agency employee Edward Snowden, who revealed the US agency’s widespread spying on people’s personal data via tech companies that relied on centralised storage systems.

“Suddenly we went from maybe a bit misunderstood, and maybe heretics, to becoming visionaries,” Averill said.

One example of the company’s shift is Bleep, a peer-to-peer chat client alternative to Snapchat and Messenger that promises “total privacy” through encrypted messages. It also has a server-free take on file-transfer services like Dropbox, called Sync.

Then there is the BitTorrent competitor for Apple’s iTunes and other music-download sites, Bundle.

It got its biggest publicity boost last year when Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke released his album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a video-and-audio package on the platform.

Music Thom Yorke Thom Yorke Source: Associated Press

Fans had the option of downloading limited files for free, or paying $6 for the full package. It easily topped 4 million downloads, although the company didn’t reveal what share involved any money changing hands.

In return for handling Bundle sales, the company keeps 10% of the income, compared to 30% on iTunes.

However it’s not clear how, if at all, the new products have translated to any more cash flowing to BitTorrent.

As a privately held company, it doesn’t publish figures on its income or any profits, although in December it said over 6.5 million people “engaged” with its paid bundles that year.

After a period of rapid expansion, it suddenly laid off a reported one-third of its US workforce in April – although the company insists it has been turning a profit.

BULGARIA BIT TORRENT USERS PROTEST A Bulgarian man protests BitTorrent networks being shut down in 2007 Source: AP/Press Association Images

One of BitTorrent’s main revenue streams remains advertising, which is part of most of its products. There has also been money coming in from selling premium versions of software, like its original client, and from licensing its technology out to other companies.

Meanwhile, on the image front, Averill said he and others were telling people about the “intended use cases” for its software, while being “aggressive” in dealing with any perceived misuse of the name BitTorrent.

“Not in a defensive way, just really clearly explaining ‘OK, you’ve picked up a story from some gossipy blog that has described this activity as BitTorrent activity and it’s not – it’s piracy, so call it piracy’,” Averill said.

That’s been very successful … you know, there was a while when folks didn’t even realise we were a company.”

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About the author:

Peter Bodkin  / Editor, Fora

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