BitTorrent service is built to fail

Far be it from me to question the motivations of Bram Cohen, the genius behind the BitTorrent peer-to-peer protocol, who has finally launched (NYT link) the long-awaited (or at least, much discussed) movie download service that BitTorrent has been working on with the major Hollywood studios. It’s possible that he entered into the deal under duress, in order to avoid a blizzard of lawsuits.

prison.jpgBut one thing is pretty clear by reading between the lines — or even just reading the lines themselves — in the New York Times story that is headlining Techmeme right now: the service as it is structured will almost certainly fail, and Bram Cohen knows it. The BitTorrent service will sell downloads of TV shows for $1.99 an episode, but will only rent movies, which expire 30 days after they are bought or 24 hours after someone watches them, thanks to the ever-helpful digital rights management features of Microsoft’s Windows Media Player 10.

BitTorrent co-founder and chief operating officer Ashwin Navin effectively admits that this is a dumb idea, and says that (NYT link) the company actually had agreement from the studios to sell movies outright for download, but the prices that the studios wanted to charge didn’t make any sense. “We don’t think the current prices are a smart thing to show any user,” he said. “We want to allocate services with very digestible price points.” Translation: We want to offer something that has a hope in hell of actually working.

Then Bram Cohen says that he thinks the new service will provide a compelling alternative to downloading illegally — but in the very next breath, he says: “We are not happy with the user interface implications” of digital rights management. “It’s an unfortunate thing. We would really like to strip it all away.” And then the real money quote comes right at the end:

“The sad thing is, it’s not about the money,” said Aaron, a 36-year-old San Francisco programmer who regularly uses BitTorrent to download movies illegally. “I’m not interested in renting a movie. I want to own it. I want total portability. I want to give a copy to my brother. Digital convergence is supposed to make things like this easier, but D.R.M. is making them harder.”

Bang. That was the door slamming shut on BitTorrent’s new service — or maybe the bullet in the temple of the studios’ hopes that they can somehow eat their digital cake and have it too.

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