Revered and reviled in seemingly equal measures, BitTorrent has transformed digital media from a tightly-controlled industry to a chaotic free-for-all. Whether you're a Hollywood exec with photos of Bram Cohen's face on your bog roll, an unashamed pirate or a thrifty file sharer who wants to avoid DRM, Bit Torrent is a divisive component of the digital world. It only takes one seeder to start the avalanche, and a single file can then circumnavigate the virtual world via millions of leechers.
We know what's in it for the aforementioned leechers; movies, music, games and previously unaffordable software for the price of a couple of clicks and, at worst, a snotty letter from your ISP, but what's in it for the original seeders? Are they fighting the man and sharing out everyone's wares out of a bizarre sense of altruism, or is there a darker motivation behind it?
Bram Cohen – the face of corporate bog roll. Image courtesy of Jacob Appelbaum
Last year, various groups of researchers and scientists teamed up to try to find out exactly that. Researchers from Madrid's Carlos III University in Madrid collaborated with scientists at the IMDEA Networks Institute, the University of Oregon (USA) and the Technical University of Darmstadt (Germany). Their results were first written up in a paper called 'Is Content Publishing in BitTorrent Altruistic or Profit-Driven?' in July last year, and were then presented at the CoNext 2010 conference last month following the peer review process.
This isn't a few guys who've had a look at what's happening on BitTorrent a couple of times and made notes; this was a major research project that isolated the seeders of over 50,000 torrents via Pirate Bay and Mininova, including files for movies, images, games and music, and then went through a rigorous review process.
'We passed through a thorough review process in one of the most important conferences in the area,' Michael Kryczka, a key researcher on the project from IDMEA told us. Kryczka also points out that the conference featured 'some of the most prestigious researchers in the area,' who reviewed the paper.