Researchers: BitTorrent Is Uniting the World’s Movie Buffs


Sniper2009filmposterPeople all over the world are downloading movies via BitTorrent, according to new research (PDF) presented at last week’s P2P Research Group convening at the 75th IETF Meetings in Stockholm. And we’re literally talking all over the world: A popular movie torrent analyzed as part of the research was within a week accessed by people from 165 countries. “Considering that there are about 192 countries recognized by the UN, this is a sizable spread of the swarm across the countries,” said Bell Labs researcher Vijay K. Gurbani.

The fact that Hollywood fare is popular around the world probably isn’t all that surprising, but the research also shows that foreign movies can be just as popular. In fact, a Cantonese movie analyzed by the researchers received even wider global distribution through BitTorrent than a Hollywood flick with roughly the same number of downloads.

Bell Labs’ Gurbani and P2P veteran Stas Khirman conducted a detailed analysis of two popular BitTorrent swarms in early June, meaning they looked at all the users who were downloading and redistributing two movies via The Pirate Bay’s tracker.

The duo’s goal was to look at popular movies with significant cultural differences, and they ended up choosing the Dakota Fanning teen action flick Push and the Chinese action movie The Sniper as their two samples. “We assumed that Sniper…would attract a Cantonese-speaking population and Push…would attract an English-speaking population,” Gurbani told me in an email. However, it turned out that the Sniper download was much more popular in the U.S. than in China, and even countries like Norway that are not really known to be home to many Cantonese speakers showed lots of downloader interest.

One should note at this point that the Sniper torrent featured an English-subtitled file, so it wasn’t completely impossible to watch the flick if you don’t speak Cantonese. However, subtitled movies tend to attract a far smaller audience through regular distribution channels. That’s not the case with BitTorrent. Multiple copies of The Sniper are available via BitTorrent, and the one tracked by Gurbani and Khirman attracted an audience of 122,437 users from 165 countries within seven days. Push, on the other hand, was accessed by 136,259 people from 159 countries.

BitTorrent users from the U.S. were the biggest faction in both swarms. Push proved to be extremely popular in Poland, while The Sniper attracted more users from Canada and India. But those differences aside, a lot of the data related to the downloading behavior actually looked remarkably similar. “(I)n both swarms, the ratio of the seeders to leechers appears to have stabilized on the fifth day,” explained Gurbani. “Intuitively, this suggests that the swarms matured at that time and started to degrade after that.” In other words: New movies are rapidly distributed within a few days, after which downloading movie buffs seem to lose interest.

One particularly interesting aspect about these two movies is how organic the buzz around them was. Push was released theatrically in the U.S. a few months before its eventual online leak, so it’s highly unlikely that people downloaded it after seeing a trailer or reading a review. The Sniper, on the other hand, premiered on the Seattle International Film Festival around the time the film exploded online, but has yet to get any U.S. distribution. BitTorrent sites like The Pirate Bay, where both movies popped up in the Top 10 list in early June, seem to have played a major role in generating this buzz among movie buffs all around the world.

Gurbani and Khirman have told me that they want to continue to analyze BitTorrent swarms to get a better sense of the download patterns for different movies in various countries. This could also help them understand the impact of anti-piracy enforcement on these types of downloads, explained Khirman. “(I)t will be interesting to check if indeed differences in anti-piracy laws make any significant impact on peer participation trends,” he added.

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