BitTorrent plans legal Chinese film service

Hong Kong companies in talks about using file-sharing technology to reduce illegal online traffic in movies

Using BitTorrent software to download Chinese-language films could be legal by year's end - the owner of the world's most popular file-sharing program plans to offer them for legitimate downloading.

Speaking yesterday at the Cannes Film Festival, BitTorrent's co-founder and president, Ashwin Navin, revealed that over the past couple of months, the company had been negotiating with various film companies in Hong Kong and on the mainland about the possibility of launching a service.

BitTorrent uses a technique called 'file swarming' to distribute large files. Rather than download a single large file from one central computer, BitTorrent assembles files from separate bits of data downloaded from other computer users across the internet.

'We are very interested in Cantonese and Mandarin films and TV shows for distribution in the Chinese-speaking market and also for expats living in non-Chinese- speaking territories,' Mr Navin said. 'In some cases when there's a small Chinese population the best way to reach them is through the internet. [Otherwise] there's no way of distribution.'

Mr Navin said he had spoken to several Hong Kong film companies but would not specify which ones.

'They've been very receptive. Everyone knows what BitTorrent is. If there's a way for them to protect their films and distribute their films legally, making the money they are not making now, I think there's mutual interest for BitTorrent and the Hong Kong film industry.

'We hope the service [of providing Chinese-language content] can be up this year.'

This might be realised after a ground-breaking deal last week signed between Warner Bros Home Entertainment Group and BitTorrent to distribute entertainment content using the file-sharing software legally. The service is intended to be launched in the US this summer. Warner Bros intends to use BitTorrent's ability to quickly download large files to rent and sell its films on the same day the movies are released on DVD.

Pricing has not been set but individual TV shows could cost as little as US$1 and movies would be sold for about the price of a DVD.

BitTorrent earlier reached an agreement with the Motion Picture Association of America to prevent film piracy and promote innovation in online digital distribution of content. Studios believe reasonably priced, legal alternatives will be preferable to downloading files that could contain viruses or poor quality copies of films.

The Hong Kong movie industry recently obtained a court order to retrieve from internet service providers the identities of 49 users who had illegally uploaded or downloaded local movies with BitTorrent software. The industry plans to take them to court for piracy.

Despite only a fraction of downloaders paying to use legitimate music downloading services, Mr Navin is optimistic about the future of paid movie downloading.

'It won't happen immediately. But we are going to work together. If we don't get it right from day one, soon after we'll have the right service. People will want to use it because it's still the most convenient way to get movies online.'

Mr Navin denied that other studios were being cautious about collaborating with BitTorrent and wanted to wait and see the result of the Warner Bros deal.

'We have negotiated with other studios and record labels as well. A number of them want to be innovative and want to try new models of distribution.'

He predicted that popularising online distribution of film content could help foster the creation of independent films, which usually find it difficult to get screened at theatres.

'There is quite a bit of content created for PC consumption. But as soon as it becomes a viable, decent-sized market, major studios will create content exclusively for internet. That's the next phase.'