“There is no better example of how theft dims the magic of the movies for everyone,” said the film industry’s butt-plug-in-chief, MPAA president Dan Glickman, reacting to the news that someone or something called BitTorrent was “providing users with illegal copies of Revenge of the Sith” on the very day the film opened. Funny, we’d have sworn a better example was Hayden Christensen’s theft of his acting style from the Windows text-to-speech module, but why quibble? BitTorrent, as anyone who’s traded a Phish concert tape online knows, is a powerfully decentralized file-sharing system that makes it easier than ever to sling big-bandwidth content to the masses. And with the recent addition of features making it easier still—among them, a search engine for locating the system’s fastest-moving torrents (formerly known as downloads)—Dan Glickman does well to fear the system’s rising popularity.
If only he had the first clue why. Theft? Put it this way: If there’s any correlation between pirate torrents and box-office revenues, Revenge of the Sith‘s record-annihilating grosses suggest it’s a correlation the movie business can live with. What it may find harder to survive is the epochal shift in media economics BitTorrent was explicitly designed to hasten. The Internet has long promised to put the power of Big Media in the hands of the people, of course; but for just as long, the nerdy little secret about publishing fat content like video and music from your own website has been that it costs fat bucks to deliver more than a few downloads a day. But by spreading the burden of delivery among the downloaders themselves—and thus dividing bandwidth costs into slices too cheap to meter—BitTorrent shatters that bottleneck. And if Glickman really understood what that means, he wouldn’t be whining about thievery. He’d be pricing retirement communities.