Mission Transmission

By Agnese Trocchi, 13 July 2004

Autonomous peer-to-peer video distribution systems

The ‘objective conditions’ for online film distribution may not yet be right, but video makers, programmers, techies and activists are busy making sure they soon will be. Agnese Trocchi reports on a handful of initiatives building and refining file-sharing systems for the distribution and pooling of digital video

Close your eyes and imagine being a proud internet user with a DSL connection. Now imagine being a videomaker: you enjoy your handy consumer camera and edit short videos from your laptop. Now imagine being someone who cares about having interesting films and videos to watch: wouldn’t it be nice to be part of a network that gives you the chance to upload your video productions, share your visions and download video and films that you can’t see anywhere else?

The BBC will deliver part of this dream by giving access to their creative archive to all UK citizens who have been paying their bills since the beginning. The corporation is exploring ways to use Peer-to-Peer (P2P) systems to ‘get users to share on our behalf’. P2P systems exploit each user’s surplus bandwidth and transform it into a resource for the community. Meanwhile Transmissionfilm is already using this method to offer downloading services to film retailers.

But maybe in your dream you seek a space to upload as well, and to download moving images for free.Now open your eyes (and your browser) and type: ‘’, and then ‘’, and then ‘’. These are the three principle examples of independent media communities whose common aim is to archive and/or distribute high-quality videos (VHS/DVD quality) over the internet.

The pioneer project in the field of archiving and distribution, Archive, states: ‘we want to provide easy access to … films, to encourage widespread use of moving images in new contexts by people who might not have used them before. It’s not only about watching downloaded movies on your desktop but also providing footage suitable for archiving, broadcasting, editing and screenings for wider communities.

Screenings in independent cinemas and squatted centres are organised all over Europe and usually the material circulates on VHS or MiniDV tapes, but it would be much easier to download the material from the internet. This is already practised by the newly-born Telestreet network (independent, pirate street TV stations) in Italy. Mechanisms such as V2V or NewGlobalVision (NGV) facilitate the circulation of content between independent producers and ease the sustainability of initiatives (like Telestreet and other grassroots TV projects). The creation and filling of a daily palimpsest is actually the most expensive requirement of independent TV. The net provides a perfect solution: you can share and download movies, fiction, spots and information from all over the world and broadcast it to the local audience; conversely everyone can produce locally and distribute globally bypassing the media mainstream and creating a new mediascape.

A new mediascape needs new rules on property to allow for such a virtuous exchange of material: Creative Commons proposes a set of licences to distribute or re-use moving image work. Theirs are now the most commonly applied licences within online distribution networks.

The assembly of multiple edits from shared footage using digital exchange was first experimented with on 15 February 2003, the day of the global anti-war march. The Indymedia video network set up a number of FTP servers to collect raw footage uploaded from demonstrations all over the world. The resulting archive was available to all for download, edit and broadcast, as was done by the NY based satellite channel Free Speech TV.

V2V was born in May 2003 as a development of the f15 initiative. It was born to share footage ready not only for screening but also for further editing. The f15 video project was organised over a number of FTP servers accessible for upload and download. But the key problem that needed resolving was the server traffic; V2V thought of addressing this by means of a distributed network and use of peer-to-peer software. V2V defines itself as a network of dedicated servers and diffuse clients whose object is to share and multiply existing bandwidth capacity.

The idea of using P2P networks was already developed by NewGlobalVision back in 2001. NGV was born as an answer to the overwhelming power of mainstream media after the tragic days of the G8 in Genoa. Videos bearing witness to police brutality were made available through the work of the NGV crew and P2P was the Trojan horse used to solve the problem of widespread distribution.

V2V and NGV rely on an architecture of servers: video is uploaded via FTP to a collection server, at the same time the user enters the relevant meta-data using a form on the website; the collector then transports the video and its related meta-data to the different publishing servers connected to P2P networks such as Edonkey or BitTorrent.

BitTorrent balances download ‘horizontally’ by exploiting the unused bandwidth of all the users through the other BitTorrent clients; these clients often become unavailable if a file declines in popularity. This is why Archive prefers to use the FreeCache system. The FreeCache system utilises permanent FreeCaches that don’t go away although particular files get flushed out periodically.

After uploading and updating processes are complete, videos are linked to an RSS/RDF feed. RSS/RDF feeds are XML text files generated by web servers that desktop clients – called RSS Readers – download on a set schedule, usually once an hour. The RSS/RDF feed is a core element because it guarantees the decentralisation of information. There is no longer any need for a central website. Any website can integrate the RSS/RDF feed of each different archive/distributor.

The ongoing experiment between NewGlobalVision and the Oceania Newsreal provides a clear example: the Oceania Newsreal crew sought a way to host and distribute their productions online and encountered NGV who offered them the set of software and the FTP server necessary to upload videos and create the RSS/RDF feed. Oceania Newsreal is now a category in the NGV archive but is also a project in its own right which uses the RSS/RDF from NGV. At the address [] you find the NGV meta-data form and after completion the video file is uploaded via anonymous FTP. The same upload process is used by V2V, but to access the V2V upload server you need a username and password. V2V in its current stage has been designed to run on small and medium-sized servers that manage other serious traffic like email and http, so it is not ready to administer an anonymous FTP server.

V2V is intended to work as a clearing house based on the use of open video standards and formats: if the dream of every videomaker is to use a video compression algorithm (codec) within a format which may be used on every operating system (Linux, Windows, Mac) and which is free software, then the Ogg/Theora video container format currently being developed by seems the solution closest in the offing. A solution that the developers of V2V are faithfully awaiting.

NewGlobalVision and V2V develop technical solutions and software suites as common goods that can be used by new distribution/archiving initiatives. The IVDN (Indymedia Video Distributing Network) wants to bring the different Indymedia and Alternative-Video Projects together on one site using content syndication. The IVDN project considers itself ‘just’ another node in the network of distributors and its ideas are based on the V2V project.

What the video distributing network is facing is a great need for servers and bandwidth; in addition to these mechanical resources they naturally require administrators with the spare time to install and maintain the necessary softwares. This is a network composed of coders and system administrators but also producers, broadcasters and distributors, working together to re-access the cinematic heritage of other generations, broadcast multiple visions, empower collective storytelling, facilitate the rapid sharing of content, skills and resources, to enable multiple connections between creative nodes and networks. Production and distribution will finally merge into a process of sharing your images with others. ‘Images that everyone can edit, change, forward, rewind and PLAY.’ (V2V manifesto)


Overnet and eDonkey2000 Movie Archive http://www.ngvision.orgV2V Commons Speech TV Indymedia

Agnese Trocchi <frenesi AT> is co-founder of candidaTV [] an independent video production company based in Rome