Thursday, March 26, 2009

Getting TV Shows into Your Computer/Media Center "The Dark Side"

The Dark Side
Yesterday, we looked at legal sources for digitally-distributed TV shows.

Now we'll get into the controversial stuff: That demon drink known as "Peer to peer file sharing."

Peer-to-peer means that individual users are sharing files with other users on the network.
There are many cases where this is a good thing (World of Warcraft updates, Make TV), but these networks are often used to "share" copyrighted materials.

Let's be clear.
If you download or "share" programming that you don't have a legal right to own or distribute, you are violating the law.

Peer-2-Peer Technologies:

Gnutella:
Gnutella is one of the peer-to-peer file sharing networks. It has good search capabilities, but is rarely used for legitimate purposes. Because of this, it isn't really pertinent to this discussion.

BitTorrent:
BitTorrent is a method for downloading large files. It's different than getting a file from a web site or an ftp site in that it is a shared operation.

I'll cover BitTorrent in depth in a future article. But, basically, it distributes the process of transferring a file. Increasing demand does not slow down the server; it actually speeds up the download.
BitTorrent is often used for "sharing" copyrighted materials. If you plan to cross the line from Fair Use into copyright infringement, you'll probably do it with BitTorrent.

Since BitTorrent is basically just a file transfer system, it doesn't really support searching. To find new files, people use regular web search engines like Google or Yahoo! or BitTorrent-specific search sites like The Pirate Bay or ISO Hunt.

Some popular tools for downloading individual files via bittorrent:
  • bittorrent The original BitTorrent tool. Rudimentary interface, but extremely simple and reliable. It has been replaced by µTorrent.
  • µTorrent Very slick and lightweight. It's the "official" BitTorrent client. Good bandwidth controls. Nice progress display. (µTorrent is not available for PPC Macs.)
  • X-Torrent (Mac only) Built-in search functions. Very granular control over bandwidth use and excellent display of download progress. Very "Mac." This was my torrent client of choice until I started using Miro.
  • Transmission Cross-platform. Default Ubuntu torrent client. Easy to use.

Broadcatching
For TV shows or other epdisodic content, you can combine BitTorrent downloading with RSS broadcasting to get continually updated lists of available downloads.
This is often called "broadcatching," "torrentcasts" or "torrent rss."

This is the model used by Make:Television, Revision 3, and others. It provides viewers with a simple way to find new episodes, gives a very fast download, and minimizes the load on the publisher's servers.

Miro can read and download these torrentcasts just like regular podcasts.
Just add a new feed to your sidebar.

But, as always, there's a "dark" use this technology as well.

The TVRSS web site publishes RSS feeds of publicly available bittorrents for regular television shows.
These files are usually (illegally) published by a shadowy network known as "The Scene" who capture and compress TV shows and post them on these file sharing networks.


Here's how easy it is get an illegal subscription to a TV show.
1) Go to TVRSS and find a show.
2) Click on the show's title
3) On the "show" page, right-click on the "Search-based Results" link and Copy it.
4) Open Miro and select Add Feed from the Sidebar menu. Miro will automatically paste the feed in.
5) Click Create Feed.

Acquiring illegal files used to be a convoluted and technical process. Now it's trivial for anyone.
What should publishers and producers do about this?

Many people feel that programs that were broadcast over the airwaves are fair game. Even if that were true, the versions of these programs you'll find on torrent feeds don't contain commercials. So the publisher is not benefiting at all from these illegal torrents.

Some publishers are taking advantage of this new technology. Make TV and Revision 3 publish their own torrent feeds. Their programs include commercials and sponsorship messages. NBC puts out Meet the Press as a free download, and it contains ads.

Of course, some are choosing to fight these illegal downloads. The MPAA and it's related institutions are pushing legislation in many countries to criminalize peer-to-peer technologies.

While legally sound, I believe that's the wrong direction.
Prosecuting the users of these networks isn't going to create any revenue for the publishers. But we need to find a model where content producers and publishers can directly benefit from the distribution of their work.

Stay tuned for a discussion of how those models might look.

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