Although he has a sticker on his computer that says destroy capitalism, Bram Cohen did not set out to destroy anything when he invented a better way to download. Sure, his invention, a piece of free software called BitTorrent, makes swapping large digital files a snap, speeding up download times and forcing everyone to share, not just leech off others. Scofflaws use BitTorrent and successor programs to trade everything from episodes of 24 to The Incredibles. But Cohen himself does no such trading and has never been sued for piracy. Media companies are pleading with the U.S. Supreme Court to hold software purveyors like him liable, claiming that programs such as BitTorrent are a bigger threat to the bottom line than movies like Constantine.
Cohen, 29, who suffers from a mild form of autism, figured out how to speed downloading by having many users trade bits of a file at the same time. He's now trying to capitalize on the invention with a website to help users find Torrent files. It need not be illicit: companies already use the technology to distribute lawful digital content. "This is the inevitable arc of technology," says Cohen. "Trying to fight it is like trying to fight the tides."