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When BitTorrent co-founder Bram Cohen was introduced at NewTeeVee’s Video Rights Roundtable this morning, interviewer Schlomo Rabinowitz asked the crowd, “How many people in the audience hate this man?” — and a few people actually raised their hands.
Despite being largely vilified in the media industry for being the grandfather of P2P file-sharing, Cohen tried to deflect responsibility for any widespread piracy that has occurred using the protocol he created. But amidst a conversation between content owners and technology companies who were trying to overcome their differences to find opportunities to work together, Bram was still a polarizing figure.
“People expect me to be some kind of copyright crusader or anti-copyright crusader. On some kind of deep level, I just don’t care. To me, they’re just bits. As for what the bits are, I don’t care,” Cohen said. At that, Rabinowitz contrasted Cohen’s attitude with that of Robert Oppenheimer, father of the atomic bomb, who later lobbied U.S. politicians to avert a nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union.
Participants were divided on whether or not Cohen’s BitTorrent protocol was as destructive to the media industry. Ethan Applen, director of technology and business strategy at Warner Bros., generously suggested that the technology is a victim of a bad reputation.
“In terms of our own view, we think P2P gets vilified. It’s just a technology. CNN used it for Inauguration coverage. It can be used for piracy, but as a technology, I think it has a lot of advantages to it,” Applen said. “P2P works really well at delivering an entire season or the entire run of a show.”
P2P could also be used as a marketing vehicle, Applen suggested. He pointed out that when an album by the then-obscure Arctic Monkeys leaked online a few years ago, it was great for the band, even though their label may not have loved it.
Cohen noted that an early copy of X-Men Origins: Wolverine that being leaked might have actually had a positive effect on the movie. Despite the fact that the unfinished movie was downloaded more than a million times from peer-to-peer networks, the movie did extremely well at the box office.
However Fox content protection counsel Betsy Zedek disagreed vehemently, saying “There’s no question that it hurt the movie. There are people who saw this online, not as the creator intended, and therefore didn’t see it in the theater and will never buy it.”
When Evan Stone, manager of brand protection at FUNimation Entertainment, said his company was “at a loss” about how to deal with anime piracy via BitTorrent, Cohen replied that the company has actually benefited from consumer awareness of anime enabled by illegal downloads.
“Before BitTorrent, there was a whole lot of anime that no one had ever heard of,” Cohen said. He argued that the wide availability of anime content on torrent sites may have actually helped grow the business. So maybe it’s not all “just bits,” as Cohen had said so emphatically. But hey, it’s only natural to take pride in your work.
Update: This article originally said that FUNimation was at a loss with what to do about anime piracy. The story has been updated to reflect that Evan Stone was speaking specifically about the difficulties of dealing with anime piracy via BitTorrent in particular.