BitTorrent Inc., the 110-person company behind possibly the most infamous piracy-enabling filesharing format on the web, wants you to know that it's not what you think it is.
For the uninitiated, BitTorrent's eponymous protocol lets people easily share large computer files with each other. And since it launched in 2001, those files have primarily been pirated movies, TV shows and music.
"The idea that people have, that we're an illegal entity, is completely intellectually dishonest," says Matt Mason, BitTorrent's executive director of marketing. "But we don't want to do a PR campaign. We just want to put out products, good products, and show that we can do what no other content or streaming service can do."
Late last year, the San Francisco-based BitTorrent started selling content legally via a new service called Bundles. The concept behind Bundles is sort of iTunes store meets sharing economy. "So, instead of putting the content in a store, we put the store in the content," Mason explains.
Most Bundles come with some free content -- three songs, for instance, from a popular album from a new singer or songwriter. But to get the rest of the album, downloaders often have to pay, either with money or with a piece of personal data like an email address.
BitTorrent Bundles' biggest seller, "Innocents," the latest album by electronic artist Moby, was downloaded 9 million times from the Bundles website. Compare that to the most popularly pirated artists, Bruno Mars and Rhianna, each of whom were downloaded about 5.5 million times last year.
"We're making deals with content creators," says Mason of BitTorrent's burgeoning Bundle collection. The Bundles currently on offer include some gems -- from Lucy Walker's "The Crash Reel" (downloaded 3.4 million times) to Joshua Oppenheimer's Oscar-nominated, award-winning documentary "The Act Of Killing."
But while BitTorrent may be raring to make deals with content creators, Big Content still seems a bit leery of the service -- gems aside, Bundles' music and movies selection is sparse, and skews heavily towards the indie. BitTorrent may crave legitimate popularity, but Netflix or Amazon Instant Video it ain't.
At this point, it's easy to draw parallels between BitTorrent and Napster, another filesharing company that tried to build itself a legitimate reputation after becoming overwhelmingly associated with piracy. Napster, competing belatedly in the subscription music market, failed to make the transition.
But really, it's too soon to predict BitTorrent's fate. The sharing service is depending on more than just Bundles to break out of the "piracy" niche. Along with content offerings, BitTorrent now has a streaming service (BitTorrent Live), a Chrome-based extension that lets you discover content available for download (Surf), and a Dropbox and Google Drive competitor with a focus on privacy (BitTorrent Sync).
Still, the company may have a long way to go before it can shed its pro-piracy reputation. BitTorrent's latest advertising campaign certainly didn't help the cause: Unsigned billboards bearing anti-authoritarian slogans do not a reputation for legitimacy breed.
Moreover, the most popular user of the BitTorrent protocol remains The Pirate Bay, an enormous digital library of largely pirated files, defended by a rotating cast of globe-trotters. "To many people The Pirate Bay is synonymous with BitTorrent," TorrentFreak staff writer Ernesto Van Der Sar wrote earlier this year.