Forget Napster. Newer programs such as BitTorrent have made it practical for Internet users to swap the much larger files required to store movies and TV shows, pushing Hollywood into the same hot seat as the record labels. In December the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) filed suit against more than 100 users of the BitTorrent network, in what MPAA Senior Vice President John Malcolm described to Wired as an attempt to "avoid the fate of the music industry."
Just what that fate is remains unclear. A 2004 study by researchers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina found that online music downloads have no net effect on CD sales, but both boosters and bashers of peer-to-peer networks can cite other studies purporting to show positive and negative effects. Whatever its effect on DVD rentals and ticket sales, BitTorrent is undeniably huge: The program has been downloaded by some 30 million users already, and the British firm CacheLogic estimates that it may account for more than a third of all Internet traffic, more than all other peer-to-peer programs combined.
The software's appeal lies in its novel method of transferring files. With traditional peer-to-peer software, downloading films or TV programs takes prohibitively long even for broadband users, because the average user can upload a file at only a fraction of the speed at which it can be downloaded. BitTorrent circumvents that problem by distributing each file among members of a "swarm," allowing many pieces of the same file to be downloaded simultaneously from different users.
One defendant, Edward Webber, has applied BitTorrent's swarm principle to his court fight: He quickly raised more than $33,000 for his first month's legal fees via online PayPal contributions–$11,500 of it within the first 12 hours of posting his request.