Internet law professor Michael Geist applauds the recent use of BitTorrent by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
Is BitTorrent the future of media distribution?
Last Sunday night, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, Canada's public broadcaster, aired the finale of Canada's Next Great Prime Minister, a television program that attracted national attention not only for its sizable audiences and the participation of several former Prime Ministers, but also for its emphasis on internet-based participation.
As part of its nationwide search, the show conducted YouTube auditions, resulting in hundreds of videos and thousands of comments. It followed up a Facebook group that has hundreds of members who have posted photos, videos, and engaged in active discussions.
Yet the CBC saved the best for last. Hours after the initial broadcast, it released a high-resolution version of the finale without copy protection on BitTorrent, the peer-to-peer protocol that is often linked with unauthorised file sharing.
The public is now able to download, copy, and share the program without restrictions.
The CBC notes that this marks the first time that a North American broadcaster has released a prime-time program in this manner.
In doing so, it is demonstrating its willingness to experiment with alternative forms of distribution as it works to meet its statutory mandate that requires the public broadcaster to make its programming "available throughout Canada by the most appropriate and efficient means".
The use of BitTorrent may come as a surprise to those who mistakenly equate file sharing solely with infringing activities. BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies are finding increasing favour with legitimate businesses attracted to its ability to distribute content in an efficient, cost-effective fashion.
Indeed, the CBC's model comes from the Norwegian Broadcasting Corporation, which last month used BitTorrent to distribute "Nordkalotten 365," one of the country's most popular programs.
The experiment proved very successful, with tens of thousands of downloads at virtually no cost to the broadcaster.
Moreover, the European Union recently joined forces with leading broadcasters such as the BBC to launch P2P-Next, a new peer-to-peer research project.
The project, which involves an investment of tens of millions of dollars, hopes to advance current P2P technologies to create the "next-generation Internet television distribution system."
The move toward distribution without copy-protection - often referred to as DRM-free - is also increasingly the norm.
Guinevere Orvis, one of the interactive producers on the CBC show, acknowledged last week that "DRM is dead, even if a lot of broadcasters don't realise it."
Many in the music industry share that view, as all of the major international record labels have abandoned copy-protection for music downloads in the face of consumer criticism and interoperability concerns.
Similarly, many of the world's largest book publishers have dropped DRM for their audiobooks, after finding that consumers simply weren't making unauthorised copies of electronic books without copy-protection.
While the CBC may succeed in paving a new path for content distribution for broadcasters, it is also placing the spotlight yet again on the contentious issue of network management practices.
A growing number of internet service providers actively limit the amount of bandwidth allocated for file swapping on BitTorrent.
Those practices - known as traffic shaping - may leave users around the world wondering why they are unable to swiftly download the CBC content.
In fact, critics point to the anti-competitive effects of ISPs limiting access to new forms of video distribution, while actively offering consumers competing video services.
The CBC's BitTorrent experiment represents an enlightened approach to content distribution that reduces costs and makes Canadian content readily available to a global audience.
More broadcasters are likely to follow suit in the months ahead, complicating the claims of copyright lobby groups that BitTorrent is a "pirate" technology and ISP practices that hamper consumer access to authorised content online.
Michael Geist holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law at the University of Ottawa, Faculty of Law. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or online at www.michaelgeist.ca.