When Bram Cohen first authored the BitTorrent spec in 2001, the intent was to improve file-sharing performance of existing single-source arenas -- Napster, KaZaA and their ilk. Cohen's breakthrough (while not exclusive to BitTorrent) was to download large files in multiple packets from many sources, speeding the existing P2P paradigm in which an entire file was captured from one person's shared hard drive. Call it crowdloading, if you will -- the new model made it more feasible to grab the big stuff like movies and whole music albums.
To whatever extent BitTorrent can build a reputation as a legitimate media distribution platform, it doesn't help that its premium brand is The Pirate Bay, a file-search portal that declines to identify or filter out content that is shared without rights-holder permission. The site ranks in the top 100 websites worldwide, in some estimates, and has undergone lawsuits, server raids, and multiple impermanent shutdowns. The Pirate Bay is regarded by movie and music companies as a blistering internet inflammation that infectiously poisons proper media consumption.
But legit players in the file-sharing biz quietly use Bittorrent for its network efficiency, while introducing new distribution and revenue opportunities for creators, and offering new media discovery sites for consumers.
In this article, the word "legitimate" means "in agreement with rights-holders." There is no philosophical stand here for or against The Pirate Bay or its users. The opinion here is that media companies adjust to technology disruption slowly, defiantly, and that they often intensify their own problems in a copy-share world.
Cohen made peace with Hollywood stakeholders in 2005, turning his company, BitTorrent Inc., into a legitimate and copyright-filtered instance of the Bittorrent distribution paradigm. So it remains today. But that landmark agreement has not softened the harsh identification of "torrents" with bootleg files, similar to the contextual sweep that connects "Googling" to searching.
As a consumer experience, BitTorrent.com evades the traditional torrent-search function entirely and focuses on promoting media packages in cooperation with creators. Site visitors are herded to download uTorrent, a front-end client for managing file-sharing. As a media-discovery engine, BitTorrent.com redirects to the "featured content" subdomain of utorrent.com, where you can browse a directory of promoted download packages. It's a small ecosystem: you get the client and you see the content.
These packages, small in number and short on celebrity though they may be, are notable for their product resourcefulness. The 4-Hour Chef package bundles book chapters, recipes, photos, videos and author notes. Music producer DJ Shadow packs up an asset collection for torrent download: three music tracks, video footage, a photo vault and ... the RealPlayer desktop client. Wait, what?
That last bit is the revenue piece. RealPlayer is the "advertiser," if we were to re-contextualize this deal in terms of content publishing. BitTorrent Inc. and DJ Shadow share revenue that Real pays for users who opt in to the software inclusion. In an interview with TechCrunch published last week, BitTorrent's head of marketing tellingly remarked, "There's not a business model for content in the digital world. There's a new business model for every piece of content you release." That's an important message for creators and media companies both.
BitTorrent.com's experiments hint at an emerging media distribution and discovery future for the file-sharing protocol. Peering down the path through the music lens, the platform might come into maturity as the fourth leg of what is now a three-legged music consumption stool:
- À la carte: This is the legacy method of acquiring music product, where the consumer buys units of ownership. À la carte music buying has existed since the first days of music printing, continuing through player-piano rolls, vinyl records, CDs and single-track files. Apple's iTunes music store is the leading v1.0 example of the à la carte paradigm.
- Music subscriptions: Similar to the cable TV model, music subscriptions allow access to huge sloppy platters of listenable media. Derided by some as music rental, subscriptions are praised by disciples for bestowing a feeling of colossal ownership. Rhapsody is a resilient example, having endured an acquisition, a spin-off in 2010 and having absorbed the legitimized Napster in 2011.
- Streaming services: Similar to subscriptions, music streaming services like Spotify offer free access to large music libraries. They pay statutory royalties to rights-holders, and subsidize the basic business through advertising. Social elements enable community development around shared playlists and Facebook spouting.
These models grow from a collision of two fundamental trends: First, the general devaluation of media content, and second, a power shift in gatekeeping. More plainly stated, listening to music costs less, and different people are telling us what to listen to. When basic access to galactic music libraries is free, and recommendations come from peers rather than from institutional power brokers, the door is wide open for peer-to-peer platforms to take an important role in marketing, distributing and delivering music. Same goes for film, as the pro-am moving picture landscape is re-drawn by Roku, Vimeo and many other disruptors.
Accordingly, a slate of torrent portals like Vodo offers consumers media choices that include outright ownership, no-DRM formats that are transferable to mobile devices, zero pricing, added-value bundles and in some cases rudimentary social discovery environments. On the creative side, easy upload paths give musicians and filmmakers alternatives to the rigid product limitations of the iTunes store, Spotify and their feeder services like CD Baby and TuneCore. This flexibility allows inventive deal-making and imaginative revenue creation that is desperately needed when consumer incentive to pay for standard music formats is reduced.
The BitTorrent platform has existed for 11 years, and by some reckoning transmits up to half of all internet traffic. The resonance of illegitimacy is probably still earned. At the same time, its neutral malleability can be a great competitive advantage to the most resourceful creators, and a delight for the most inquisitive consumers. Both sides should advance the legal torrent movement by adopting the platform for distribution and discovery.
Brad Hill is a former Vice President at AOL, and the former Director and General Manager of Weblogs, Inc.