BitTorrent, the file-sharing technology company which unleashed a wave of illegal downloading of music and video, has gone legitimate, with the launch of its own Hollywood-approved film store.
The BitTorrent Entertainment Network has begun offering hundreds of the latest films for $3.99 (£2.03) per download, pitching it into an ever more crowded marketplace for online retailers.
Where once they viewed the company as a pariah that allowed internet users to steal their wares, Hollywood studios are now enthusiastically embracing BitTorrent's latest venture.
However, sceptics say that the company has let the internet piracy genie out of the bottle and may have only limited success in putting it back. The studios Paramount, Warner Brothers, MGM and 20th Century Fox, plus television producers including MTV, are among those which have agreed to license content to the new BitTorrent website, which went live yesterday.
They have been attracted by the company's pioneering technology, which allows huge files to be downloaded fast. The files are held on individual PCs and swapped between users in bandwidth-efficient fragments, or "torrents".
The company and the film industry hope that BitTorrent can win paying customers because of its reputation as an internet pioneer and because 135 million internet users are now operating BitTorrent software. However, the films available on the BitTorrent Entertainment Networkare for "rent" only. They have to be watched within 24 hours and are encrypted so that they cannot be kept indefinitely and transferred to other computers.
Since it was launched in late 2002, BitTorrent software has grown to be the most widely-used means of sharing files, mostly music albums, television shows and films that the entertainment industry would otherwise sell on CD or DVD.
As broadband internet connections have proliferated, so has such internet piracy, and some estimates suggest that BitTorrent file-sharing accounts for up to a third of all internet traffic. The company's new accommodation with the entertainment industry will do nothing to prevent its open-source software being used by pirates.
Television shows, including 24 and Prison Break, cost $1.99 to download to own, in line with competitor sites such as Apple's iTunes. New film titles cost $3.99 to rent for a 24-hour period, while older titles cost $2.99. Ashwin Navin, one of BitTorrent's co-founders, said the site has decided not to offer films for sale to keep, because the prices demanded by the studios were too high.
He said: "We're really hammering the studios to say: 'Go easy on this audience'. We need to give them a price that feels like a good value relative to what they were getting for free."
On technology blogs yesterday, some BitTorrent users expressed scepticism about the new business model.
Several questioned why people who have got used to free video would switch to paying for it. And others asked if it was fair that BitTorrent should profit from using its customers' own computers and internet connections to help distribute its content.Reuse content