In the days since Sony canceled the theatrical release of the Seth Rogen, James Franco comedy The Interview, the studio has so far failed to make any alternative distribution arrangements, in part because crucial Video On Demand partners are unwilling to assume the risk of a potential new cyberattack. (A weekend rumor that Sony is planning to put the movie on its own streaming service, Crackle, appears to be just that—a rumor, and nothing else at this point.)
But San Francisco-based BitTorrent, whose Bundle service enables large media file sharing with a paygate that protects and monetizes downloadable content, says it will happily step up if Sony is game.
"This is bigger than Sony at this point," says Matt Mason, BitTorrent's chief content officer. "We can't let this go, and by we I mean the free world. When it comes to freedom of speech, what's happening with this is really frightening. This film should come out, whether on BitTorrent or not, even if it's the worst movie in the world."
BitTorrent has become associated with illegal file sharing because the technology it invented has been adopted by many piracy sites—but the company itself markets legal products and services and does not condone illegal sharing of copyrighted material. BitTorrent's Bundle product has been used by a number of recording artists to sell albums and multimedia content, as well as by film studios to distribute extended trailers and ancillary material. In 2013, Madonna used the service to distribute her short film Secretprojectrevolution—in large part, says Mason, because peer-to-peer networks enabled the film, which focused on artistic rights and censorship, to reach parts of the world where freedom of speech was repressed. For similar reasons, The Act of Killing, a 2012 documentary about mass Indonesian killings in the 1960s, used BitTorrent's Bundle to release a 20-minute preview.
As for security and the risk BitTorrent would be assuming itself, Mason says that as a peer-to-peer network, BitTorrent "is the most resilient network on the Internet." In other words, it's very hard to hack. Essentially, 170 million users are running BitTorrent at one time or another as their computers share files, and disabling it would be like the world's biggest game of cyber whack-a-mole. The BitTorrent protocol supports major platforms including Facebook and Twitter, and "moves 40% of upload and download traffic every day," says Mason. "It's one of the backbones of the Internet, you cannot take it down."
Despite Sony's abrupt release cancellation that even President Obama has criticized, Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton told NPR on Friday that the studio hasn't given up on finding a way to get the film to audiences. If Sony uses Bundle to release The Interview, it would be BitTorrent's first paygated film and an unprecedented experiment in major motion picture releases. Bundle's revenue model, which Mason says would be the same for Sony, is that the studio could set the price and keep everything but transaction fees and BitTorrent's 10% cut.
And of course BitTorrent would get the benefit of a hugely elevated profile that would help it clarify its status as a legal distribution platform and not just a tool for pirates.
"If nothing else, it would more clearly communicate our intentions to Hollywood," says Mason. "What better way to take back the Internet than to use technology Hollywood has been scared to use?"