NBC Universal has patented a new technology that can detect high volume file-sharing swarms, including those using BitTorrent. The system is set up to detect popular pirated files and gathers data that can be used for anti-piracy purposes, business intelligence, and to help ISPs relieve strain on their networks.

nbcuniDespite the growing availability of legal services, unauthorized file-sharing remains one of the core threats for entertainment industry companies.

Over the past several years various anti-piracy tools have been deployed. Nonetheless, piracy is still very much alive today with hundreds of millions of people sharing infringing files every month.

While there’s no silver bullet to stop all piracy indefinitely, NBC Universal scored a new patent this month which it believes may help.

Titled “Early Detection of High Volume Peer-To-Peer swarms,” one of the patent’s main goals is to detect and target instances of online piracy before the problem spreads.

The patent (pdf) describes P2P in general as something that can be positive, but is often abused.

“While the P2P infrastructure has many advantages, it also has led to abuses. Piracy of digital assets on peer-to-peer networks incurs losses by content owners estimated in billions of dollars annually.”

The high volume traffic generated by BitTorrent pirates also poses a problem for ISPs. Pirates tend to strain the network, the patent explains, which can become costly in terms of resources.

To address these issues NBC Universal proposes to monitor file-sharing swarms. Once a swarm exceeds a threshold of a certain number of users, alarm bells will ring so appropriate action can be taken.


The patent summarizes the invention as “a system that provides for early identification of high risk swarms to enable a more proactive stance towards anti-piracy efforts.”

“The early detection provides for enhanced anti-piracy efforts, improved allocation of network resources, and better business decision-making,” it adds.

For example, the swarm data can be used to provide real-time business intelligence, to be utilized for business advantages. In addition, the anti-piracy efforts can include takedown messages to ISPs, which are already quite common today.

Most controversial is the suggestion to use swarm data to limit or block file-sharing traffic. According to the patent, this may be useful for ISPs to save costs.

“Alternatively, the network provider may proceed to diminish or cap network resources once some limit of data activity is met. In certain aspects the processing for the high risk swarms also indicate the high volume swarms and allows for traffic shaping for the ISPs.”

While Net Neutrality advocates are not going to be pleased with such an implementation, technically the current FCC rules allow ISPs to block file-sharing traffic as long as it’s “unlawful”.

Still, it’s doubtful that NBC Universal’s parent company Comcast will tread down this path anytime soon. The company previously faced significant pushback when it actively throttled BitTorrent traffic.

While there are some interesting suggestions and ideas in the patent, we have to admit that it feels a bit dated.

Perhaps that’s not a surprise since the application was submitted eight years ago. At the time, piracy monitoring technologies were relatively rare. Nowadays, however, it’s a multi-million dollar industry with dozens of companies.