Peer To Peer File Sharing
Asked to describe radio, Albert Einstein answered: "The wireless telegraph is not difficult to understand. The ordinary telegraph is like a very long cat. You pull the tail in New York, and it meows in Los Angeles. The wireless is the same, only without the cat." To paraphrase Einstein, peer to peer (P2P) video file sharing is just like sharing videotapes, only without the videotape.

One Big Server

So you have a collection of brilliant videos and you want to share them and your directorial genius with the world. You can go about distributing them in two ways. One is to store them at central locations frequented by people who look at videos, like your local video store. In the computer world, we call this the "client/server" model. The video store is a "server" and the people who patronize it are "clients." There are advantages to this model: people know where to go to look for a video, the stock is consistent, easily predictable and you can ask a friendly store employee for help finding what you want. The downside of this is the limited hours of operation, their fees, and their selection of videos. For example, they might not want to carry the video of your trip to the zoo.

Sharing Servers

A second model for video distribution is to make copies and hand them out to your friends and family. They may reciprocate with videos of their own. Or one friend may loan your video to another. This is "Peer to Peer" sharing. Everybody in the distribution chain is equal with every other person, there's no corporate headquarters, no brick and mortar store and no limited hours of operation. There are many advantages to this model beyond not needing a store or employees, nobody decides what videos you can share and what ones you can't.
Most people who use the Internet are already familiar with the client/server model of distributing video online. You go to cnn.com or some other site, click on a link and video begins to play in a window. This is fine for consumers of video, but not always great for the producers of video. Chances are, CNN isn't going to put up the video of your zoo trip or even the really funny eight minute clip of your nephews Moe and Elvis.

The Rise of P2P

In 1999, Shawn Fanning realized that the problem with sharing files over the Internet was that the process required large, centralized servers. Why not, he reasoned, have thousands, or even millions, of less powerful computers act as mini-servers? A few sleepless Jolt Cola nights later, he'd written the software which would become Napster. Sean was interested in swapping music files, and that became the backbone (and the bane) of his company. Each Napster user became a mini-server. Though primarily used to trade music, Peer to Peer software could be used to share any types of files, images, sounds and even computer programs. For a while at least, millions of people traded music files with abandon. Some colleges and universities reported that students trading music files occupied 90% of their bandwidth. In February of 2001, Temple University Vice President Arthur C. Papacostas stated: "[T]he Office of Computer and Information Services commenced an investigation and found that the University's bandwidth was insufficient to permit both the use of Napster and the delivery of educational materials and services."
It wasn't just a bandwidth concern, however. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) had a fit. Artists like Metallica complained bitterly about lost royalties and legal action killed off the original Napster software three years later. The P2P sharing genie was out of the bottle, however, and there are a bunch of other applications that fill the gap today, including (but not limited to) Grokster, Kazaa, LimeWire and Bearshare.

Try It Out

So I decided to try P2P sharing one of my creations. I chose a short video and made a compressed 320×200, 15 frame per second .AVI version of it suitable for transmission over the Internet. There are more Peer to Peer file sharing programs than you can shake a stick at, but here's my experience with one.
LimeWire (www.limewire.com) is available for Windows, Mac and Linux platforms. The layout is simple and user friendly and the installation was very straightforward. LimeWire also has a nice search feature that makes it easy to run multiple searches at the same time. On top of all this, the Apple version has iTunes support built-in, which allows you to buy music one song at a time.
As soon as the software is running (and you're on the Internet), you have a default shared directory (which you can change). Putting your files online is as easy as dragging and dropping files into this directory. Now, as long as your computer is online, it acts as a server, sharing everything in this directory, including your Magnum Opus. Using the search feature in LimeWire, anyone can find your movie, as long as they know what to look for.

Share It
Your first problem is that your audience can only get to your file while you are online. When a viewer downloads your video using LiveWire, it's automatically shared on the viewer's computer. Load balancing means sharing the server duties between multiple servers and this speeds propagation. The more popular a file is, the faster it downloads, because it can be downloaded from everyone who has previously viewed and downloaded your video. Of course, only people who are online can share your video with others, but with more high-bandwidth always-on connections, the technology is becoming more practical by the day. The more people who watch your video, the more available it will become. If you were in marketing, you might say that this is a scalable distribution model that automatically grows with demand. But that's sort of a Catch-22 at first, if no one knows about your movie.

Publicizing Your File

So nobody knows the title of your swank indie short even though you've made it readily available? A database with a subject or keyword search would be great, but that just hasn't been implemented in the LiveWire interface yet. Traditional electronic Internet marketing, on a Web site, message board or by e-mail, will certainly work, but that's not the P2P way. The best solution is use the Website MagnetMix (www.magnetmix.com), which is designed to integrate with LiveWire. MagnetMix is a far-minded endeavor meant to showcase independent creative output (music, video, still images and computer software) over P2P. MagnetMix is a greatest hits content archive and LimeWire has a button that connects to MagnetMix.
Once on MagnetMix, there are convenient links for submitting content. I clicked on the "Submit Content" button and added information for my file. Two days later, I got an e-mail from MagnetMix telling me that my file was being carried in their Video section. Now, folks who are interested in the state of indie film on the Internet can find my movie with ease.

The Future of P2P and Video
File Sharing

It's easy to see how P2P can transform the accessibility of media on the Internet. Granted, the bulk of most of the current usage is still for commercial MP3 music files and commercial movies, but the technology works just as well for legitimate content providers. P2P could start a flurry of people watching other people's indie videos and begin a distribution revolution by sharing their videos. What are you waiting for? Let's see what you've been shooting lately.

Kyle Cassidy is a network engineer and a video artist.

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