Mininova Gutted — and Another Chance to Monetize BitTorrent Blown

The popular torrent-indexing site late yesterday took the drastic step of removing all but a few torrents in response to a copyright infringement lawsuit. Dutch rights group BREIN went to court against Mininova in June, and later that summer, the site was ordered to remove any links to infringing content and prevent any further uploads of such content. Mininova is still considering appealing the ruling, according to a blog post published yesterday, but it decided to take down millions of links in the meantime.

The end of Mininova as we know it comes just a few days after The Pirate Bay announced the closure of its tracker. It also marks yet another wasted opportunity to monetize BitTorrrent.

Mininova was by any measure one of the most popular — if not the most popular — torrent sites on the web, clocking 633 million page views in August and serving more than 10 billion torrents since being launched in early 2005. Mininova functioned as a search engine, meaning that it didn’t actually run its own tracker, but instead indexed torrent files tracked by The Pirate Bay and other tracker servers. In fact, The Pirate Bay and Mininova were in many ways a sort of duopoly ruling the BitTorrent world. The Pirate Bay’s tracker servers made it possible to swap files, and Mininova’s search engine made them discoverable.

Yet the two couldn’t have been more different. The folks behind the Pirate Bay cast themselves as rebellious outlaws and made fun of copyright owners’ requests to take down content. Mininova, on the other hand, responded to all takedown request and a few months ago even started to experiment with a proactive filtering solution to police its uploads. And while The Pirate Bay belongs to an obscure offshore company, with the people associated with it long claiming that they don’t own a piece of it, Mininova is incorporated in the Netherlands, complete with an office address and a CEO.

Mininova has also been increasingly cooperating with rights holders to distribute licensed content via BitTorrent. At last check, its Content Distribution service offered access to some 9,000 torrents ranging from obscure e-books to impressive TV documentaries. And the only torrents Mininova left up are part of the Content Distribution service. That should give its content partners a temporary boost as users start to download licensed content for the lack of any better alternative, but it remains to be seen if those few thousand torrents are enough to keep Mininova going as a business.

I’ve said it before: The chances of turning torrent sites into businesses that are not only legal but actually make rights holders money are incredibly low. BitTorrent users don’t like paid content or intrusive advertising, and they’ll always have a plethora of alternatives at their disposal that won’t bother about rights and royalties. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. YouTube has demonstrated that it’s possible to monetize content that’s been uploaded, and sometimes even mashed up, by end users, and it took rights holders a while to get used to the fact that giving up control helps them to make more money (in fact, Viacom still hasn’t seen the light.)

I’d argue that the same could be done with a torrent site. Don’t expect a perfect system, but one that’s good enough, and still much better than the status quo. Unfortunately it looks like it’s too late for Mininova to even try.

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