Q&A: isoHunt founder says P2P can help create post-piracy world

Gary Fung holds out hope of working together with Hollywood and the music industry

Gary Fung founded BitTorrent search engine isoHunt.com in 2003 when he was a 19-year-old student at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. With the demise of The Pirate Bay , isoHunt is now the second most popular peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing site today behind Mininova , and ranked in the top 250 Web sites in the world by both Alexa and Quantcast.

Fung talked with Computerworld about how isoHunt has evaded legal trouble so far, why he holds out hope of working together with Hollywood and the music industry, and how he's launched a new P2P site for just that purpose.

How did you start isoHunt? I was studying engineering and physics at UBC when I started isoHunt. I just wanted to learn some new programming.

Were you an active file-sharer? Not really. Frankly, I wasn't even using Napster back then. But I saw how potentially disruptive P2P was to the entertainment industry and content distribution in general. There was a gap in terms of a good search engine for file-sharing networks. Google was getting big back then, but wasn't yet on top. Neither Pirate Bay nor MiniNova were around yet.

How is isoHunt different from them? The Pirate Bay gathered the torrents that point to files and hosted them on its own servers on something called a BitTorrent tracker. A tracker is like a traffic cop for content: it tells a downloader who else has the content you're looking for.

Pirate Bay also categorized torrents for easier browsing. Both BitTorrent trackers and categorization are touchy issues, legally. Because the law is all about intent, whether you are intentionally leading people to copyright infringement.

isoHunt is a search engine, which most of the others are not. We go out and index the torrents on other BitTorrent trackers, including MiniNova, LegalTorrent.com and others: sites with Creative Commons-licensed music, as well as BitTorrent sites with just Linux and open-source software.

As a search engine, we don't host torrents, nor do we edit or categorize them. We just link back to the sites hosting the torrents, as well as cache a copy of those torrents.

Google does the same thing. If you go to Google and type in a TV show's name and add "filetype:torrent" you will see torrents, too.

I don't think isoHunt would be better as a directory. You saw the competition between directories versus search engines: Yahoo versus Google. We all know how that went.

How big is IsoHunt today? We get 30 million unique visitors a month. And I think we are the largest site in terms of quality and quantity of torrent files in our index.

We use the open-source Lucene software for search. We've done a lot of custom tricks to improve it.

Our index takes up 30 GB on MySQL databases. We program in PHP. PHP has its problems, but it has a lot of history, a lot of libraries, and is very fast. The fact that we have only 14 servers in Toronto is testimony to how fast PHP is.

Counting me, there are 5 employees. There are two systems administrators and two developers and me. I develop and do a whole bunch of other stuff.

And you make money by selling ads? Our ads are mostly general, though some advertisers will try to target younger, technical audiences. So we get some ads for consumer electronics.

I saw an ad for Qwest Communications. Who would've placed that ad? Some ad agency, though there are a lot of different intermediaries. But Qwest should be aware -- and they're not complaining. So you can draw your own conclusion.

Any other big-name advertisers? I'd rather not say, because mentioning it might raise more eyebrows.

Have you turned away a lot of adult advertising? Yes, we try to make our site as clean as possible. We don't do gambling ads, we don't do adult ads, no prescription Viagra ads, which is common for a lot of other [P2P] sites.

We also don't allow pop-up ads, or anything malicious, like ActiveX embedded ads. When we see those being slipped into advertising networks, we try to hunt them down.

We do allow Flash ads, as long they don't do anything super-annoying like flash, shake or start a song without people mousing over or clicking on them.

Is it lucrative enough to justify all of the risk? We have a lot of volume, but our monetization is below average, because, frankly, we face a lot of stigma.

But times are changing. Look at Hulu.com and YouTube, that kind of social and viral video-sharing is where the market is heading.

P2P has a bad name now. But more and more people are using it, and more legitimate content is being shared on it. And more advertisers will become receptive.

isoHunt faces lawsuits from the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Canadian Recording Industry Association (CRIA). I'd be pretty frightened to go up against their high-paid lawyers. What gives you the guts to do it? Because there's no other choice. Think of the Jammie Thomas case in Minnesota -- that woman got a $1.9 million fine for downloading music. It is quite apparent that if we don't fight, then they would get a default judgment, and a similarly ridiculous number would be thrown at us. So I really don't see any choice but to fight them.

What do your parents think about having such powerful enemies at such a young age? Worried, I suppose, for sure. Otherwise, it's the cost of doing business.

Still, I'm surprised that how long you've been able to resist, considering you're just across the border. Maybe we are lucky, or maybe we are doing something right. We have been fighting lawsuits longer than any other group still standing -- 3 years now. Pirate Bay and TorrentSpy have both been shut down, but our case still hasn't even gone to trial.

I don't know if you can call that victory or not. But I think it makes a difference that we are a search engine like Google. Thus, we have a lot of immunity under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and its Safe Harbor provisions. Also, we work with copyright owners to take down infringing content as prescribed by U.S. copyright law.

There are horror stories about malware on P2P sites or in the files themselves. How do you combat that? We mostly rely on user reports. Some of the really shady advertisers try to sneak in malicious ads from time to time. We work with ad networks to locate them.

We can't do anything about viruses or malware in the files being shared. But we do have a fairly good system for users to comment on and rate files. They show up next to the search results. If you see a negative rating, you can guess that it might be a fake file. We can't do those kinds of checks ourselves.

Do you think Hollywood or record companies will seed P2P networks with dud files? Yes. There were those e-mail leaks that showed MediaSentry working with Hollywood to send out fake files to P2P. It's a prime example of how the content industry sends out their own fake files to entrap users, either to sue them or annoy them into thinking P2P is not easy.

This goes back to our legal fight. They are telling us we have all of these infringing files on BitTorrent. At the same time they are contributing to this by adding their own fake files. How am I supposed to know what is fake, what is spam, and what is infringing?

I have done what I can in terms of working with content owners to take down torrents. I extended the invitation to Hollywood. If they want to work with us on taking down something that is infringing, we will gladly take it down. They have not responded to that invitation.

Has anyone? Yes. I won't say their name, but it is one of the members of the MPAA, ironically. The MPAA is suing us, but one of their members is working with us just like a normal copyright owner should. That is what we are arguing to the courts. But the MPAA simply wants to shut us down for its own PR and political reasons. It has nothing to do with actual copyright infringement or damages.

How about TV or movie studios actually seeding trailers or TV shows onto P2P networks? Like leaking a TV pilot before it airs to generate more publicity and hype? There's no definitive evidence they are doing that, but it would make sense as a marketing ploy, so I wouldn't be surprised.

There is also a lot of content that is being openly uploaded and promoted on P2P. I've been talking to a lot of independent filmmakers who make their own Webisodes.

There are also indie musicians and videogame studios that use BitTorrent. For example, World of WarCraft uses BitTorrent to distribute patches. These are big files, so it saves on their bandwidth costs.

So what would you suggest to a movie studio or a music company about how to make money from P2P? You look at the way Hulu embeds ads in TV shows that you can't skip. It's brilliant, and they are making good money.

There are a lot of different ways you can monetize that haven't been explored. And I would very much like to explore them.

I just launched a new site, Hexagon.cc , where I want to work with copyright owners to help them distribute, market and make money. It might be indirect, like MySpace, where musicians put up profiles and songs for exposure.

But MySpace already exists. Why go to Hexagon? We focus on the files, while adding more and more social features. Sharing is, after all, inherently social. In Hexagon, we let you easily create groups in which you can invite your school friends or workmates or other social contacts. That way, you only share with people you know or share the same interests. That's different than isoHunt.

We also encourage sharers to use Creative Commons licenses when they upload their songs or movies.

To avoid competing with established communities like Facebook, we will eventually let you invite your friends and import your contacts from other sites to Hexagon.

How did you get the idea for Hexagon? I think the only way forward for file-sharing is not to go against the content owners. When content owners sue their own customers, there is a whole lot of hatred from consumers. We are between the two parties, trying to figure out how we can be the intermediate solution, between outright suing of consumers, to having consumers downloading without paying a dime.

So, you're inviting Hollywood to use you as a marketing channel? Yes, and eventually a full retail store, like Apple's iTunes or Amazon's video-on-demand.

That's what the company BitTorrent unsuccessfully tried to do several years ago. All I can say is that was a case of exceptionally poor execution. BitTorrent offered exactly what people didn't want: $4 for movies protected by DRM (Digital Rights Management). You might as well go to Netflix and pay less and not have to worry about whether the DRM was going to keep you from watching that movie you downloaded on your PC on your TV. That's tedious.

Did BitTorrent feel like it had no leverage, and that this is what the content owners wanted? Yes. I think Hollywood knew that this model -- pricing it unreasonably, with DRM -- wouldn't work. They simply wanted to be able to tell the judge in court that they tried their best, and that this ( BitTorrent's failure ) shows that working with filesharing doesn't work. It wasn't a sincere effort.

Would you ever do P2P and stream content like Hulu or YouTube does? That is one thing in the works. The technology is in progress, but it's not useful enough to be ready for public use.

Do you think isoHunt will still be around five years from now? Judging from the fate of many other filesharing sites, I do see a lot of bad precedents. At the same time, I am hopeful that there will be positive change so that we can actually work with copyright owners, instead of them continuing to play Whack-a-Mole with us.

Legally, I'm hoping that we will have the same happy ending as Sony did with the Betamax VCR. Hollywood was crying foul over the VCR, like they are now with P2P. The courts said that as long as there is a lot of non-infringing use cases, you can't just make a new technology illegal.

I think that is a fair judgment and a very big precedent for technologists and copyright owners to go by, and we are hoping that we can rely on that precedent in our case.

Ironically, Sony is now one of the Hollywood companies suing me.

You know, I love to see movies. I go all the time, and pay Hollywood to see them. I'm not trying to fight them, or make them become like me. I simply want to make the distribution channel more efficient and social.

Tags bittorrentisoHuntP2P

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Eric Lai

Computerworld (US)

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