March 24, 2018

BitTorrent Search released a new search facility yesterday, making it slightly easier to find torrent files on the Net. This is an odd strategic move by – it doesn’t help the company’s customers much, but mostly just muddles the company’s public messaging.

[Backstory about BitTorrent: The BitTorrent technology allows efficient Internet distribution of large files to many recipients, without creating a central network bottleneck. In current released versions of BitTorrent, you locate content by getting a torrent file from a standard web server. The torrent file points to the location of a “tracker” which in turn keeps track of where on the net you can go to get pieces of the content. (A new beta version eliminates the tracker, which is an interesting development but is largely irrelevant to the issues I’m discussing today.)]

The term “BitTorrent” is used to refer to three separate things:

  • a company, which I’ll call “”,
  • a software product called BitTorrent, distributed for free, with source code, by,
  • the communication protocols that enable users’ systems to communicate, which are implemented by the BitTorrent software but can be implemented by other software programs.

Blending the three together is sometimes a harmless rhetorical shortcut, but at other times leads to faulty reasoning. For example, a court could hypothetically shut down (if the company were found to be a lawbreaker) but it could neither undistribute the software code that was already in users’ hands, nor uncreate the protocol. Critics who are thinking sloppily (or want their audiences to think sloppily) sometimes ignore these distinctions., the company, may have a business incentive to blur the distinctions, in order to make the company’s role seem more important than it really is.

The new search facility seems to be entirely separate, functionally, from the BitTorrent software and protocols. Anybody could have created this search facility; and indeed others have. Google, for instance, happens to offer a fairly complete torrent search facility. A search for “sith” returns quite a few files claiming to be the new Star Wars movie; but so does a Google search for “sith filetype:torrent”. There’s no reason, functionally, why had to be the one to offer a torrent search engine. An independent search engine would work just as well.

Is search legal? I’ll leave that one to the lawyers; but I’ll point out two things. First, the DMCA provides a safe harbor against indirect infringement for search engines that follow certain takedown procedures on receiving infringement complaints. will apparently follow those procedures, and so the safe harbor may apply. Second, the connection from to any infringing content is quite indirect: a search result gives the address of a torrent file; the torrent file gives the address of a tracker, the tracker gives the addresses of client computers, and the client computers are the ones that actually distribute infringing content. (The new trackerless version of BitTorrent changes the details, but doesn’t reduce the number of steps.) There are at least three intermediaries between and any infringing material.

Even if the search facility is legal, it seems like a bad strategic move by Large copyright interests have been trying to paint BitTorrent as having a pro-infringement agenda; but thus far their efforts have had only limited success because Bram Cohen (the software’s creator) and have carefully dissociated themselves from infringement and have conspicuously designed their technology for the benefit of noninfringing users.

As Joe Gratz argues, the new search facility, regardless of the merits, will make it easier for’s critics to paint the company as having a secret pro-infringement agenda. And that by itself is enough to make an in-house search engine a big mistake for the company. needs to remember that it can be killed by Washington politics. But politicians need to remember, too, that it is the BitTorrent protocol, not the company, that is changing the world. Killing the company will not kill the protocol. A protocol is an idea; and in a free society ideas cannot be killed.


  1. Anonymous says:

    > in a free society ideas cannot be killed.

    Simple : change the society from free to non-free. Problem solved.

    Simple but spooky ;-/

  2. The search facility indeed shows that BitTorrent-the-protocol is most often used for infringement. For example, search for taper-friendly bands, and you will still see links to ripped copies of their CDs (or at least of ripped copies of some of their songs on compilations). Looking for movies, of course, gets results of ripped DVDs and video-of-screen copies.
    It doesn’t have to be this way. BitTorrent-the-protocol and BitTorrent-the-software is excellent for distributing things that are meant to be distributed for free, particularly live music where the artist allows taping. It’s also quite useful for software releases; I got the ISOs for FreeBSD 5.4 this way, and was able to feed three times what I grabbed.

  3. A protocol is an idea; and in a free society ideas cannot be killed.

    Oh great. Now you’ve given them a new idea. Protect IP by restricting free exchanges of ideas.

    Wait. Never mind. That idea hasn’t been new since at least the DMCA.

  4. The arrogance of the computer community is staggering, the only reason any degree of interest has been put into our community is purely a financial in respect to the fact we’re not paying for things. For people like us to try and take some philisophical stance upon our community and society is insane. Some of you should read 1984 by Geroge Orwell, there is no such thing as free, in any capacity or meaning, it is an ideal, an imaginary scenario, that keeps the rest of us in check by dreaming about freedom. I believe the internet will become policed more and more sooner rather than later, purely because the men at the top of the food chain are only going to make billions instead of tens of billions. For too long now we have been paying well over the odds for everything, well i think we are entitled to tak some of that back…

    In short, this is our technology and the more string you find to tie us with, the better the scissors we will create. There is no such thing as freedom, but there is such thing as telling the big poverty causing corporations to go and f**k themselves…

  5. Matt,

    I think you and I agree about the freedom issue. When I say we live in a “free society” I don’t mean that we are perfectly free to do absolutely anything we want. I mean that we have a certain baseline level of freedom that prevents the government from going to the extreme lengths that would be necessary to stop people from using technology to achieve the results they want.

  6. My rant may of been extreme, but the issues the people at the top of the food chain come out with is “What about the shareholders?”, “What about jobs?”. The internet has given people an Unprecedented amount of information and access to items that in the past they may of not been able to enjoy, such as albums and films as well as knowledge. Large corporations have continually brought out new types of media, new ways to spend our money, be it the guest burger at McDonalds or the latest DVD. As for the shareholders, the vast majority of shareholders within a business are the board of directors this is how they maintain control of their business. As for jobs, since the free market economy and neo conservatism from the past 20 years, people are just commodities, as soon as the profits are down 10 per cent people lose their jobs and quality of life, Nike have 8 year olds in Chinamaking their sneekers for christ sake.Do the American congress care?As long as their pockets are being lined, f*ck the rest of the world. It wasn’t so long ago that music companies were saying they would have to go bankrupt if the music kept being downloaded illegally(Napster case), these are just scare tactics, the music companies actually want us to believe that there will be no music if they are not around. Well it was here long before EMI were around and it will be around when they are long gone. It cost £1.50 to manufacture a CD, the same there abouts for a DVD, we pay £15 plus. If they were to treat us fairly and stop screwing us there would be no need to torrent. If anyone out there ever feels guilty for downloading a torrent, just take a look around you, just take a few seconds, think about your car, think about your job. Firstly do you think the people at the top of the corporations are concerned about what you dont have, do you think they care about your job, if you have one, if you can feed yourself, all they care about is that you pay the maxmimum for minimum, that is not economics it is greed. If things weren’t so profit oriented and things were fair for all in the free market, it would all be fine, but with the ever present grinding of the greed machine, we must fight back. Never feel bad for getting something for nothing, if your steeling from the grandma next door, you deserve to go to jail, if you download from the net, who are you really steeling from?? you are just taking back wha toyu have overpaid for all you life. In another few years i should break even………
    Torrents 4 all……….

  7. Aleksandar says: