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Must-Download TV [p2p]

hydrarchist writes: this article is really about p2p power and bit torrent. Jo ta ke!

Must-Download TV:
The Latest Developments in TV-Show-Trading Technology Mean You Don't Need
TiVo To Watch What You Want, When You Want

Farhad Manjoo

When the Federal Communications
Commission gave its blessing on Aug. 4 to a new TiVo service that Hollywood has opposed, the
decision was widely hailed as a triumph for techies. The news was both
unexpected and unlikely -- these days, government officials rarely move
against the wishes of giant media companies.

TiVo's upcoming service, called TivoToGo, will allow users to send
recorded TV shows across the Internet to PCs or to other TiVo machines, a
functionality that TiVo says customers have long demanded. Although TiVo
has imposed a host of restrictions on the system, media firms told the FCC
that TivoToGo would cause immense harm to their bottom line. The FCC
didn't buy it, and geeks were ecstatic: "Three words.... There is a GOD!"
wrote one Slashdot reader in a typical note of glee.

The closer one looks, however, the less divine the FCC's approval of TiVo
begins to appear. For one thing, the new TiVo service seems pretty hard to
fall in love with. It's strapped down by a surfeit of copy-protection
mechanisms that many people will probably find tedious if not odious. For
instance, the service will allow users to transfer shows only to a small
number of machines registered on a single customer account; technically,
says James Burger, an attorney for TiVo, the system is meant to let users
move shows from one of their TiVo systems only to another (say from a
summer home to a winter home), and not even to friends or family.

TiVo was required to lock down its system and to seek the government's
approval in order to comply with the "broadcast flag" rule, which the FCC
adopted last year. The rule is designed to prevent the widespread trading
of television shows as we enter the age of high-definition digital
television. Hollywood's nightmare scenario is that high-def TV will become
"Napsterized," with shows available online to anyone, anytime, for free --
which may sound, to some TV fans, less like a nightmare than a heavenly

And, indeed, despite Hollywood's efforts, it's a dream that in many ways
is coming true. While the government and Hollywood fret over ways to keep
high-definition television off the Internet, copies of standard-definition
TV shows are now heavily traded online. Once an underground activity
plagued by hard-to-use tools and shows of less-than-stellar picture
quality, the systems for finding and downloading TV are steadily becoming
easier to use, and the current watchability of the shows is nothing to
scoff at.

In recent months, a host of developers and TV enthusiasts have been
working on ways to improve online trading -- they're building
sophisticated networks to record and encode and distribute shows, and
they're improving peer-to-peer transfer systems to make downloading
easier. The hottest new improvement is made possible by the merging of two
Internet innovations, the peer-to-peer protocol BitTorrent and RSS, the
popular Web syndication standard. Together, these systems enable a
computer to automatically find and download a user's favorite shows --
something like having a TV station designed just for you.

To be sure, the shows being traded online don't have anywhere near the
quality of high-definition television broadcasts, and those HD shows are
what the FCC's broadcast flag rule is meant to protect. Critics of
Hollywood are skeptical of its claim that digital television will one day
become a hot commodity online -- at full resolution, a typical one-hour
digital show requires 14 gigabytes of hard-disk space (more than three
times the size of a DVD), and days to transfer at today's broadband

But even if the shows currently online aren't of HD quality, many people
will probably find them good enough -- if you have a big monitor on your
machine, or if you connect it to a standard-size television, most of the
shows you find will look decent. And anyway, in TV, unlike the movies,
picture quality isn't paramount. At least, it's not as important as
freedom, the right to do whatever you want with your set, to watch what
you want when you want, which is what online TV trading allows, and what
the future high-definition, broadcast-flag-protected world will not.

Indeed, the most troubling thing about the FCC's broadcast flag rule is
that it seems designed to stamp out the idea that we're free to do what we
want with TV. As many critics of media firms have pointed out, there's
something deeply unsettling about the fact that TiVo, a firm that
completely remade the way we watch TV, needed the government's permission
to release a new technology. You don't have to be a techno-libertarian to
find this state of affairs troubling. Sure, this time the FCC allowed TiVo
to innovate -- but the decision could easily have gone the other way. In
the future, what other technologies might the government deem too
dangerous to be invented?

Trading TV shows online is, of course, illegal. Television shows are
copyrighted, and unless the copyright owner has granted permission, it's
as illegal to download a TV show as it is to download a song or a
proprietary operating system or a video game. Violations of this law carry
heavy penalties -- we've all heard about the kids who lost their life
savings for swapping songs using services like Kazaa and Morpheus.

But what about the ethics of trading online? Regardless of the legality,
is there anything unethical about downloading a television show from the
Internet? Is it wrong?

This is a harder case to make. When you download a song that you could
otherwise have found only on a CD in a store, it's reasonable to say that
you've gotten something for nothing -- what most people would call
stealing. But broadcast television is free, and many of us already pay for
a basic set of television shows through some kind of cable or satellite

We're also already used to recording and trading TV; who hasn't taped an
episode of "Friends" for a friend, or borrowed a copy of "American Idol"
from a co-worker? If you download an episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer"
rather than ask your brother to record it, are you really doing anything
that bad?

"It's hard to identify what the harm is," says Mike Godwin, an attorney at
Public Knowledge, a digital-rights group that opposed the broadcast flag
rule. "Let's say you're a fan of the FX show 'Nip/Tuck,' and you wanted to
see it on Tuesday night, but you were out and you didn't set your TiVo. So
you say, 'Let me hunt it down online.' People do that all the time. People
who are fans of the show probably already have FX -- they're paying for
it. Now, you could say that the harm is in that the distributed version is
usually made available without the commercials -- but if you have a TiVo,
you aren't watching the commercials anyway."

Godwin concedes that downloading premium-channel shows such as "The
Sopranos" or "Six Feet Under" might be a bit harder to justify for people
who aren't subscribers to those services. But even this is something of a
stretch, since nobody considers it wrong to ask an HBO-blessed colleague
to feed you your weekly diet of "Curb Your Enthusiasm," or to invite over
a half dozen friends for a "Sopranos" party. (HBO, though, came down on
bars and restaurants that publicly screened its shows.)

The mass distribution of premium shows might worry Hollywood, but the main
fear of media companies is bigger than that. Media firms make money from
TV by keeping it scarce. Even considering the hundreds of channels now on
TV, there are only a finite number of slots available, and there are
hundreds of thousands of episodes of new and old television programs that
might fill those slots. TV companies choose which shows to play when, and,
because you've got no other choice but to watch what's on, you watch --
even if you might not particularly enjoy what's on. But would you continue
to watch what the TV companies chose if you could find something you
actually wanted to watch? Hollywood fears that you would not.

As the Motion Picture Association of America, Hollywood's main industry
group, said in a statement responding to the FCC's approval of TivoToGo,
"Technologies that enable redistribution of copyrighted TV programming
beyond the local TV market disrupt local advertiser-supported broadcasting
and harm TV syndication markets -- essential elements supporting the U.S.
local broadcasting system." As Hollywood sees it, in other words, TV
depends on your powerlessness over it.

It's this powerlessness that rankles Mark Sailes, a 20-year-old computer
science undergraduate at the University of Leeds in the U.K., who is
working on a number of systems to make TV trading easier. Like students
all over the world, Sailes has two abiding interests -- tinkering with
computers and watching television. His taste in TV, too, is rather
typical. For the most part, he says he likes popular American shows. The
trouble is, new American programs aren't immediately broadcast in the
United Kingdom; it can take years for the latest episodes to skip across
the pond, which clearly is too excruciating a wait for dedicated fans who
need to know what happens in the end with Ross and Rachel.

So what's an enterprising European "Stargate" fan to do? In a world made
small by a ubiquitous computer network, the answer is obvious -- download
the latest American shows. But BitTorrent, the best tool to download
extremely large files, works differently from something like Kazaa, in
that it has no built-in search capability. Pointers to BitTorrent files
are posted on the Web or traded on discussion groups or in chat rooms, and
you've got to know where to look to find them. For a long while, finding
good-quality shows online was difficult, Sailes says -- and once you found
a file of a TV show, how would know whether it was any good, worth
spending hours to download?

So in order to bring a kind of professionalism to TV trading, Sailes and
his friends set up a worldwide network of distributors. Members of the
group are responsible for recording shows, encoding them into portable
formats, uploading them using BitTorrent, and then posting the shows'
details on the IRC channel #BT, where Sailes and his crew hang out, and on
Sailes' own Web site. (Sailes asked Salon not post his site's URL, not so
much because he fears prosecution, he said, but because he didn't really
want to deal with the extra unnecessary publicity; it's possible to find
the #BT crew's torrents, though, on SuprNova, the biggest and most popular
torrent site.)

But a few months ago, Sailes says, he and his friends began noticing
another bottleneck in TV trading. "It became apparent that hundreds of
people were coming into our IRC channel just to ask when new shows would
be available, just spending a whole lot of time doing nothing but waiting
for the new show," Sailes says. This is due to another idiosyncrasy of
BitTorrent. The system works best when lots of people are downloading the
same file at the same time, and getting a TV show requires a knack for
timing -- you've got to find a show while it's new, within the first few
days of its being posted online, before everyone who wants it has
downloaded it and the file has faded away. Instead of having the people
come to IRC to ask about new shows, Sailes wondered, wouldn't it be great
if the #BT crew could somehow notify all the interested traders when a new
show was ready?

The situation faced by TV show downloaders is not very different from the
problem faced by consumers of most content on the Web -- how do you know
when your favorite Web site has changed, and how do you know when to check
back in to a blog that's only occasionally updated? In the blogosphere,
the answer for most people is RSS. So why couldn't that work for TV shows?
Sailes wondered. People's computers could automatically check the RSS feed
for updates, and when a desired show was found in the feed, the machine
would automatically download the program, without the user's input. "We
saw that we could quite easily get this done," Sailes said.

Sailes didn't exactly come up with this idea on his own. Net visionaries
have long been pondering the marriage of BitTorrent and RSS, and many
people have built systems to bring about this union.

But Sailes didn't think that anyone had gotten it just right, and this
spring he and a roommate set out to build a stand-alone RSS reader meant
specifically for TV trading. What they came up with is Buttress, an
open-source Java application that, while still very much a work in
progress, looks extremely promising. Using the system is easy: You give
the program a few RSS feeds to monitor (here are some to get you started),
and you give it some keywords of shows you'd like to download --
"sopranos," "buffy," that kind of thing. The program periodically scans
the feeds, and if it sees your keyword, it launches your BitTorrent app
and downloads the show. Because this happens in the background, while
you're sleeping or at work or out of town, it's painless -- you don't need
to look around for the show, or to wait while it downloads, or to worry
about whether you recorded it, etc. All you've got to do is trust that
someone, somewhere, has put the show online -- and when you check back on
your machine, you'll see that you've got it and it's ready to watch.

Buttress is not the only such application. There is a plug-in for the
popular BitTorrent client Azureus that's also useful, and there's an app
for Linux systems. All of these are open-source programs, and developers
are working mightily on improvements. Sailes says that by the fall TV
season, there will be a very stable version of Buttress available, one
that "shouldn't be a problem for anyone to use."

Although there are no firm numbers, TV trading still appears to be
relatively uncommon. Sailes estimates that there were more than 50,000
downloads of the last episode of "Friends," but compared to the millions
of people who watched it on TV, that's not much. It's clear that trading
is not hurting Hollywood. "The last time I checked, the sales of DVDs of
television shows were huge -- way larger than anyone had ever expected,"
says Fred von Lohmann, an attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.
"It doesn't seem to me that the Internet trading is harming the market in
any substantial way."

And the best way for Hollywood to curb trading, von Lohmann says, would be
to quickly offer high-definition digital television. Because of their
quality, high-def shows would be much more difficult to trade, and the
better quality would give people a reason to tune in to their televisions.
But Hollywood's not doing this; instead of quickly moving to HD, the
industry has been pushing for a regulatory lockdown of HD technology, a
complicated scheme that will do nothing to stem the trading of shows

And it's conceivable that the trading of standard-definition shows online
may even slow the adoption of digital TV. After all, who will want a
digital TV device locked down by copy protection when people can stick
with standard TV and experience the sheer joy of doing what they want.
With online TV trading, you'll never miss a show ever again, and you can
find shows from all over the world, and you can even catch some old-school
programs. As the blogger Jason Kottke has termed it, you can now "roll
your own reruns."

"Of course, they just want to restrict choice," Sailes says of the media
companies who would lock down TV. "It's up to us to get the best out of
what they give us."

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About the writer

Farhad Manjoo is a staff writer for Salon Technology & Business."