If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.
Warner Bros. has decided to join forces with long-time nemesis BitTorrent, announcing Tuesday that the studio has inked a deal with the file-sharing company, whose software has become a feeding ground for illegal downloading.
A large portion of BitTorrent's 65 million users hit up the site to use its peer-to-peer technology to illegally swap media files, while a smaller segment uses its search engine to buy legal copies of videogames and other media. About 10 percent of the searches lead to sales.
"The problem of piracy is getting worse, not better," Kevin Tsujihara, president of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group, told the Los Angeles Times. "The way we're positioning this within Warner Bros. is, let's take the problem and turn it into an opportunity. If we can convert five, 10 or 15 percent of these users into legitimate customers, we think it can have a significant impact."
BitTorrent will launch a content store this summer in the vein of Apple's iTunes Music Store to sell and rent downloads of Warner Bros. movies and TV shows, giving film and television fans yet another way to beat the heat.
"ITunes converted people who were doing downloads illegally into legal users," media analyst Alan Weiner told the Times. "It's got to be as simple as what Apple is doing. That's the standard that's being set."
While this particular deal makes films such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and The Dukes of Hazzard available for downloading, according to Variety BitTorrent is already in talks with other major studios and networks to provide similar services.
"We have just been embraced by the largest movie studio that is owned by the largest media company," Ashwin Navin, cofounder of BitTorrent, told reporters. "We expect to see more deals and to push the envelope" to get legal content onto the Web.
The studios, in turn, are requesting that BitTorrent purge its search engine of a ton of copyrighted material as a sign of good faith.
"BitTorrent has shown they are very good at filtering out illegal content," Tsujihara told Variety. "Now they face a challenge of converting their users who are used to getting product for free to purchase it legitimately. We know that's a battle we are both facing."
For years "file-sharing" has been a dirty word in the film, music and TV industries, connoting images of $6.1 billion in lost revenue and college students illegally downloading thousands of songs in their dorm rooms. But now those same studios, distributors and record labels are figuring that they had better capitalize on what is fast becoming a favorite method of obtaining media for both kids and adults.
BMG, for instance, resurrected the granddaddy of file-sharing services, Napster, and turned it into a legitimate (albeit so far unprofitable) music-distribution service. Some Warner Bros. titles are already available on Movielink.com, but through the latest deal BitTorrent will also get access to TV shows like Babylon 5 that haven't hit the Internet (legally) yet. And because BitTorrent utilizes its own software to transfer hefty video files, its operational costs--and therefore the cost to consumers--could be lower than that of competitors such as Movielink and Amazon, (which is supposedly breaking into the movie-downloading racket soon).
BitTorrent raised $8.75 million last year in its bid to transform itself from a broke dorm denizen's best friend to a legitimate means of accessing digital entertainment. The company also partnered with a former legal adversary, the Motion Picture Association of America, in November to start ridding its site of links to illegal downloads.
The MPAA has sued BitTorrent users in the past for illegally downloading feature films, but Warner Bros. feels that the company is well on its way to fulfilling its part of the bargain by installing better copy protections and tossing copyright-protected material.
"They've done everything we asked them to do in trying to become a legitimate service," Tsujihara said.
As for the downloading underworld, illegal peer-to-peer file-sharing is still a weapon of choice.
BigChampagne Media Measurement reported that The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and Ice Age: The Meltdown are the hot downloads right now, with about 50,000 people obtaining pirated copies online.
"The real enemy is the massive global community of people who take things for free without permission," Eric Garland, BigChampagne Media Measurement's chief executive, told the Times. "Most innovators, most developers, are building technologies that can be used by Hollywood to their advantage, and not just against them by people who swipe stuff on the Internet."
People who purchase Warner Bros. content via BitTorrent.com will not be able to burn it onto DVD, but users can keep the films and TV shows on their hard drives for as long as they like.
Warner Bros. joins NBC Universal, which announced in November it was partnering with search engine/file-sharer Peer Impact to distribute movies and TV shows online.