The Internet Archive is now offering over 1,000,000 torrents including our live music concerts, the Prelinger movie collection, the librivox audio book collection, feature films, old time radio, lots and lots of books, and all new uploads from our patrons into Community collections (with more to follow).
–Archive.org, August 7, 2012
BitTorrent is synonymous with piracy — at least among those who don’t use it. Hollywood decries it, ISPs throttle it, campuses and companies block it, and politicians have tried to ban it. Yet, removed from politics, the technology itself must be recognized for what it is: An ingenious, efficient, and nearly indestructible data distribution system.
Often confused with sites like the Pirate Bay, which users search for links to mostly illicit files, or with the programs used to get torrent files, BitTorrent itself is not in fact a website or a piece of software. It is a protocol, a method of moving data around, just as the World Wide Web and email are protocols. BitTorrent harnesses the distributed architecture of the Internet to deliver files in a novel way. Rather than one user pulling data from one server or from another user via a server, BitTorrent allows users to download a file in thousands of little pieces from thousands of independent sources. As soon as a user receives one of these little pieces, they immediately start giving it. That’s why it’s so hard to kill. Every downloader is also an uploader, and to kill a torrent, you’d have to boot every single user who has the file off of the protocol.
The only centralized player in the system are the aforementioned tracker websites. But these sites host no actual content, illicit or otherwise. All they offer are tracker files ( or “magnet” links to these files) that tell a user’s downloading software what file to look for through other people’s computers. These tracker files are tiny — the entirety of the Pirate Bay’s library has been packed up into one manageable file that is available to download as (what else?) a torrent file. Download it and post it on your website, and bingo! You are now also the Pirate Bay.
While this all plays into the amusing cat and mouse game between pirates and the companies and governments and police who hunt them, such sport obscures the fact that BitTorrent can be extremely useful for legitimate purposes. If your goal is to make stuff freely available, as far and wide as possible, as cheaply as possible, and as permanently as possible, you’d be hard pressed to find a better method. For archivists and librarians, who worry about what happens when their funding runs or when civilization collapses, BitTorrent presents a wonderful option.
It’s an option that the good folks at the Internet Archive have just exercised in a big way. Archive.org has just released over a million files as free torrents: Reams of books and audio books, thousands of movies and videos and pictures, their entire archive of live music recordings. All of it is in the public domain, free to enjoy and to use. These files are not alone — there have always been lots of legitimate files available via BitTorrent, but the sheer magnitude of illicit content available via the protocol have always weakened the don’t-shoot-the-messenger argument. No more.
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