Bram Cohen's cellphone buzzed once more. A reporter from Business Week was calling again. Wired magazine's January issue, with a six-page feature on Cohen, had hit the Web that...
Bram Cohen’s cellphone buzzed once more.
A reporter from Business Week was calling again. Wired magazine’s January issue, with a six-page feature on Cohen, had hit the Web that morning, and the phone had been ringing all day. Everyone, it seems, wants a bit of Cohen’s time to talk about the tempest he has wrought: a mushrooming file-sharing program called BitTorrent.
“Can you call back in an hour?” he asked the reporter before flipping the phone shut. He puttered barefoot around his Bellevue home during a recent wintry afternoon, seeming overworked and a little agitated that there weren’t more hours in the day.
The numbers alone explain all the fuss. BitTorrent, which allows its users to retrieve video and other large files on the Internet, has been downloaded 30 million times. It is so popular that, by some estimates, it hogs a third of all traffic on the Internet. The program is nothing short of huge, and Cohen knows it.
“I wasn’t really expecting it to become that big,” he said, “because that level of big is just ridiculous.”
Perhaps more than any other program, BitTorrent has enabled users to turn the Internet into a vast television and movie network, where the latest films and television series can be quickly downloaded free. The technology offers a sophisticated and speedy way for users to share large files, breaking them into small chunks and allowing users to begin sharing each chunk almost immediately after downloading it.
Last month, the Motion Picture Association of America began a legal assault on BitTorrent users, filing lawsuits against the operators of computer servers hosting BitTorrent files. The action has caused several sites to shut down, and others are raising money to mount a legal defense.
The actions aren’t likely to crush BitTorrent’s popularity. In fact, some tech watchers say the program, and others like it, ultimately will change the entertainment industry. By breaking long-established rules, BitTorrent users may force those rules to be rewritten.
“It creates a way to make a standard PC a very viable alternative to a TiVo box or a Comcast box,” said John Ludwig, a partner at Ignition Partners, a Bellevue venture-capital company. Ludwig recently used BitTorrent to download an episode of “Desperate Housewives” that his TiVo digital video recorder missed.
“It continues to provide more freedom for people to watch the TV shows they want to watch when they feel like watching it,” he said.
From job to job
While the controversy rages in Hollywood and in the courts, 29-year-old Cohen mostly spends his time in his three-bedroom home with his wife, Jenna, and their two young children. He has never had a corporate job and over the years has bounced in and out of programming positions at technology startups and dot-coms.
He moved to Bellevue in 2003 to work at Valve Software, the company that released the “Half-Life 2” video game last year. Cohen signed on to help develop Valve’s online software-distribution engine, called Steam, but left after several months, saying it didn’t work out.
Now he lives off of donations from grateful BitTorrent users, which can amount to a few hundred dollars a day, and by selling a small bit of advertising on his BitTorrent download page, at www.bittorrent.com.
Cohen is in the difficult position of trying to avoid the legal pandemonium while developing new versions of BitTorrent with new capabilities. He said he has never been contacted by the movie or music industries and has never illegally downloaded anything.
He isn’t surprised that the movie industry is taking action against some BitTorrent users. “Those pirate sites are really flagrant,” he said.
But he does fault Hollywood for not doing enough to widen distribution and for not respecting consumers. Many of the files on BitTorrent are films and television shows that haven’t been released to DVD.
Now or later
The second season of the popular show “Nip/Tuck,” for example, isn’t on DVD yet. Fans can wait for a rerun or download the episodes using BitTorrent. And people who want to see the movie “Friday Night Lights” can wait for the DVD release next week or find it today with BitTorrent.
“A lot of Hollywood’s problem is they don’t want to make stuff available,” Cohen said. “If you don’t let people buy your stuff, they’re not going to pay you for it.”
Then again, many of the films available in theaters are also on BitTorrent. A recent search found copies of “Meet the Fockers,” “Polar Express” and “Oceans Twelve.”
Cohen isn’t much of a consumer. He doesn’t have cable, and the family didn’t have any television reception until his father-in-law brought an antenna over to watch a football game.
He prefers to spend his time figuring out Rubik’s Cube-style puzzles, including one called a Roundy that he bought for $100 on eBay. He has dozens of these puzzles in his office and recently bought a product-design program in hopes of creating his own.
In junior-high, he devised lengthy solutions for his Rubik’s Cube involving long sequences and shorter subsequences based on the three rotating layers of the cube. Those patterns are still so familiar that he can solve a Rubik’s Cube in two minutes, only casually glancing at the cube while his hands furiously twist and turn.
“When I was a kid, my mom hated getting puzzles for me,” he said. “She’d buy a puzzle, and half an hour later I would solve it.”
He’s also a juggler, favoring balls made of lead. He can juggle five at a time, staring at the ceiling while the balls swoosh through the air.
Cohen has Asperger syndrome, a form of autism marked by eccentric social skills and an obsession with complex topics, such as patterns. He said he also has obsessive-compulsive disorder but has managed to get it under control.
He grew up in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where his father taught him the basics of computer coding at age 6. In first grade, he flummoxed friends with comparisons of the Commodore 64 vs. the Timex Sinclair personal computers. He was actively programming by age 10.
College was a bore
He attended the Buffalo campus of the State University of New York for two years before dropping out, bored out of his mind, he said. He got a job at Kinko’s but was fired for having an insubordinate attitude.
That’s when Cohen started putting his software skills to use, working as a software engineer at EarthWeb, an online services company in Manhattan that went on to become one of the more notorious dot-com bubble companies.
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He eventually moved to the Bay Area, taking jobs that interested him and hanging out with the computer-hacker crowd. In 2002, he founded an annual hacker conference called CodeCon with Len Sassaman, a former roommate who is now a doctoral student studying privacy technologies in Belgium.
Sassaman used to play pranks on Cohen when they lived together by scrambling all the Rubik’s Cube puzzles sitting around the house. Cohen would have to get up and fix them, finding the idea of an unsolved puzzle intolerable.
“He’s very good at his strengths,” said Sassaman. “When he gets an idea in his head, he works it over until he has it solved or knows it can’t be solved. I’ve rarely seen him give up on problems.”
Cohen knew a bit about writing networking programs and had the idea that he could do something better. Driven to develop a program so successful it would get as many users as possible, he started working on BitTorrent in 2001 and unveiled it at the first CodeCon.
Cohen said he designed it for the community at etree.org, a site that shares only music by artists who expressly allow the practice. Soon, BitTorrent was being used to trade large files built upon the Linux platform. It didn’t take long for the software to take hold with illegal music and movie swapping.
The practice is so prevalent on college campuses these days that some students prefer to download television shows and watch them from their computers, said Ignition Partners’ Ludwig.
“It doesn’t dawn on them to go buy a TV and hook it up to a cable feed,” he said. “That would just be bizarre.”
Mark Goldey, a legislative attorney for the New York City Council who in his spare time manages a legal file-sharing network called the Furthur Network, said he suspects BitTorrent has been largely responsible for the surge in broadband Internet adoption in the United States over the past few years.
“Teenagers aren’t shelling out $29.95 a month to check the weather and chat with their friends,” he said. “They can do that on dial-up.”
There is clearly a market for file-sharing, but the challenge has always been finding ways to make money with it, said Bill McAleer, a managing director at Voyager Capital in Seattle. For now, peer-to-peer networks mostly involve sharing audio and video content, he said, but in the future the technology could be put into a number of other uses.
“The Web is certainly allowing a lot more communication around the edge compared to what used to exist,” he said.
Cohen could be taking the first tentative steps to bringing a business model to BitTorrent, and he has hired developers in San Francisco and Helsinki, Finland, to help him prepare the next version. It will be loaded with features, he said, but he won’t say anything about them.
Will they make him a millionaire? Probably not. Already, people are taking the BitTorrent code and building their own applications on top of it. Friends say that in order to get rich, Cohen would have to spend time thinking about making money instead of thinking about his code — and that’s not likely.
“There’s this impression that getting rich is the most important thing one must do,” said Sassaman. “I’m pretty sure Bram doesn’t agree with that.”
Kim Peterson: 206-464-2360 or firstname.lastname@example.org