BitTorrent, a company known for its pirate-friendly software, yesterday announced the availability of its BitTorrent Entertainment Network (BEN), an online service for legally downloading movies and TV shows. Essentially a peer-to-peer (P2P) equivalent of the iTunes Store or the recently-launched Wal-Mart Video Downloads, BEN uses BitTorrent technologies to pull content from multiple sources simultaneously, hopefully cutting download times.

BitTorrent is best known for its P2P technologies, which are most often used by pirates to illegally share software, music, movies, and other content. However, the new BEN service marks a new chapter in BitTorrent's history, one in which the company is trying to go legitimate and use its technologies for legal rather than illegal purposes. Surprisingly, BitTorrent has the support of a number of content creators: 20th Century Fox, Lionsgate, MTV Networks, Paramount, and Starz are among the companies providing content to BEN.

That said, BEN got off to a rocky start Monday. Download times are abysmal if my testing is any indication, despite the supposed superiority of BitTorrent over standard Internet downloads. The quality is iffy as well: BEN uses a variety of file types, though paid and rental downloads are encoded in standard Windows Media Video (WMV) format utilizing Microsoft's DRM (digital rights management) scheme. (A free version of "Night of the Living Dead" I downloaded, however, was in MPEG-4 format, wouldn't play in Microsoft's digital media applications, and offered lousy quality.)

If my testing is any indication, BitTorrent has a ways to go before it can compete with the iTunes and Wal-Marts of the world. For now, my advice is simple: Skip out on this bizarre service and its lousy client software and download times.