Warner Bros. will become the first major studio to provide legal video downloads using the BitTorrent peer-to-peer distribution system. The deal will enable American consumers to download programming at the same time as commercial DVD releases.

From the summer, more than 200 Warner Bros. titles will be available, comprising new releases, archive movies and television series, including blockbusters such as Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

BitTorrent, now a venture-capital backed company based in San Francisco, California, is also the name of the leading open-source file-sharing protocol, specifically created to enable the transfer of very large files over the internet.

The announcement follows an agreement between BitTorrent Inc and the Motion Picture Association of America to prevent film piracy and promote innovation in online digital distribution.

The Warner Bros. material will be protected using digital rights management to limit the distribution of unauthorised copies.

“BitTorrent has made the leap in creating a legal partnership that respects the value of the intellectual property,” said Kevin Tsujihara, president of the Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group. “This has provided us with a next-generation platform for the distribution of our films and TV programmes.”

The Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Group was founded in 2005 to bring together the businesses in the company involved in the digital delivery of entertainment content to consumers, including home video, online, wireless, games and anti-piracy and emerging technologies operations.

“The launch of a legal BitTorrent online video service allows us to extend our reach to places our content would not ordinarily be found legally and opens up new opportunities,” added Darcy Antonellis, who heads the distribution technology and operations division of Warner Bros. Entertainment. “Entering into agreements such as this to distribute our content is not only a better way to reach existing and new customers but a reflection of the critical role distribution technologies play in the future of the entertainment industry.”

“BitTorrent is the ideal platform to publish high-quality content on the internet,” said Ashwin Navin, who co-founded BitTorrent Inc together with Bram Cohen, the creator of the file distribution system. “As developers of the leading peer-assisted protocol, we’re pleased to be working with Warner Bros., an industry innovator with the largest library of motion pictures, to bring our millions of users entertainment at the click of a mouse.”

Hollywood faces the prospect of massive online piracy of movies similar to that which hit the music industry before it could offer a legitimate response. The adoption of BitTorrent by a major movie studio may be seen as an attempt to offer a legal alternative to illicit file-sharing.

Other organisations, including the BBC, BSkyB and AOL, have elected to use a competitive commercial peer-to-peer delivery system from Kontiki.

Meanwhile, Time Warner has invested in Veoh Networks, founded by Dmitry Shapiro to create another alternative to BitTorrent.

Time will tell if BitTorrent can transfer its association with illicit video downloads to legitimate distribution, in the way that the music file sharing network Napster was re-launched as a commercial brand.

While the BitTorrent system may be used as an efficient means of distributing any large files, a search on the BitTorrent site revealed many results that appear to be copied off air or ripped from commercial DVDs.

A significant proportion of internet traffic is understood to be constituted by BitTorrent downloads, many of which are likely to be illicit copies of copyright material. It is estimated that an average of ten million BitTorrent users are online at any one time.