NEW YORK (Fortune) -
There is no reason why Bram Cohen, the brains behind BitTorrent software, should still be in business.
Others have come before him offering technology that made music and media free: first there was Napster's Shawn Fanning, then the European duo behind Kazaa. Those self-styled Robin Hoods quickly found themselves shut down or forced to stay just one step ahead of entertainment industry lawyers.
The 30-year-old Cohen's invention BitTorrent is the next generation. It makes it simple to download massive, bandwidth intensive files (everything from the Lord of the Rings trilogy to the latest episode of Desperate Housewives in high def to a file containing 400 Amazing Spider-Man comic books). BitTorrent is so popular that it now accounts for at least 20% of the entire volume of the Internet. And it's attracted over 45 million users. For high schoolers and college students, using BitTorrent is as natural as wielding a cell phone.
And yet talk to Hollywood and the establishment that should be crushing him seems in awe instead: "He's obviously a very brilliant guy," says Dan Glickman, president of Motion Picture Association of America, which leads the charge in cracking down on film piracy. The BitTorrent guys, says, Glickman, "have some revolutionary ideas and interesting concepts and we have been talking with them."
What makes BitTorrent different from its predecessors is one thing: Cohen, himself. Unlike the rebels of the past, Cohen has made no attempt to allow his users any degree of privacy, and has no problem when the MPAA and it's recording industry cousin, the Recording Industry Associations of America, launch suits against people posting copyright-infringing material using BitTorrent (like the real examples above – just scroll through TorrentSpy http://www.torrentspy.com/latest.asp or Pirate Bay http://thepiratebay.org/recent.php for more). He says: "A lot of people in tech have been going 'Ha ha, we're sticking it to them' which is counterproductive, unpleasant, and unlikely to make a lot of money."
Instead Cohen has been working with the industry to try to set up a marketplace where licensed or original BitTorrentized material can be bought and sold – his company would take a cut somewhere along the lines. Think of it as part iTunes, part eBay for bandwidth-intensive content. Some Hollywood execs, like recently departed Disney CEO Michael Eisner, think the concept's time has come: in his last days in office, he gave a speech to peers in which he said they shouldn't shun technologies like BitTorrent, but embrace them, arguing that content is king. Last month venture firm DCM-Doll Capital Management bet that Cohen could indeed make BitTorrent a business, investing $8.75 million in the startup. The San Francisco-based company now has 12 people and should be up to 20 by the end of the year.
Getting Hollywood to not just appreciate BitTorrent, but make it thrive is one hurdle. The other is a personal one: Cohen suffers from Asperger's syndrome, a mild form of autism that makes concentrating on technical details a snap, but picking up on normal social cues incredibly painful. Cohen spent two years working on BitTorrent — solving a puzzle surrounding huge downloads that had plagued the Net since its early days – and even longer working on living with his Asperger's. He accomplished the first. The ultimate test of whether he has beaten the second is whether he can make the jump from brilliant coder to businessman.
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