In modern Internet parlance, “torrent” is basically a synonym for digital piracy. But much like Kleenex and Band-aids — those classic brand names appropriated for wider use — torrents began as a concrete product, invented by a single company. And that company, the San Francisco-based BitTorrent Inc., wants to seize its technology back from pirates — and use it to help musicians, filmmakers and authors reach paying audiences.
Sound ironic? It is, a bit. But Monday morning, the company announced that its Bundles experiment — a year-old platform where artists can release content directly to fans, in exchange for e-mail addresses, possible album sales, and the promise of online buzz — had crossed a landmark 100 million downloads. And later this month, BitTorrent will introduce a payment system into the platform … at which point, presumably, both BitTorrent and the entertainment industry will figure out whether their vision for the future of online content works.
BitTorrent, for those who haven’t used it — legally or otherwise (!) — is essentially a way for computers to transmit data across a network, just like the more widespread HTTP. But unlike HTTP, which can take a long time to transmit large files, BitTorrent can move things like movies, albums and e-books really quickly. That’s because, instead of downloading large files from one source server, BitTorrent basically distributes the download across the network. There’s less lag, fewer disruptions, and little way to block distribution — whether you’re a litigation-happy production company or a censorious government.
Hence, BitTorrent has become popular with a motley group of Internet users: major corporations like Facebook and Twitter, which use it to release updates; organizations like the Human Genome Project that need to move lots of data; savvy Internet-users who, for whatever reason, want to share things anonymously; and, of course, content pirates, who can use the protocol to download pirated movies and music in a snap. According to Torrent Freak, a filesharing news site, BitTorrent users downloaded TV’s most-pirated show, “Game of Thrones,” 5.9 million times last year — more times, in other words, than people watched it live on HBO.
Statistics like that have only reinforced the torrent/piracy link. But when you zoom out and look at legal BitTorrent downloads, a more complicated picture emerges. Sure, GoT was torrented 5.9 million times. But Moby’s “Innocents” Bundle — a package of singles and videos from the album of the same name, which Moby released through BitTorrent last year — was downloaded nearly 9 million times. Pretty Lights’ BitTorrent Bundle, “A Color Map of the Sun,” got a Grammy nod. And the creators of the short documentary “The Act of Killing” published it on BitTorrent to get around censors in Indonesia, where the film is set.
And that’s the essential promise of BitTorrent, argues Matt Mason, the company’s chief content officer: The protocol eliminates middlemen. There’s no iTunes store, no Amazon, no censors. Just creators and fans. Even BitTorrent itself doesn’t collect user data, unless publishers opt into it.
“We’re trying to build a more sustainable Internet,” Mason says at several points during our conversation. “The entire industry has given up on selling digital [content]. But for us, it’s about sustainability” — in other words, a profitable future for artists and publishers, on an Internet that supports their work.
That’s a powerful vision — and one the entertainment industry is increasingly buying into. In addition to Moby and Pretty Lights, Madonna, Public Enemy and De La Soul have tried out the Bundles project. Mason says he’s met with every major label and most of the major movie studios. He’s generally greeted with two attitudes: The marketers and salespeople love BitTorrent, he says; the board members “think we’re Pirate Bay and want to throw holy water at us.”
Neither group, it turns out, is quite right. BitTorrent clearly isn’t the downfall of the entertainment industry. But at this early stage, it’s impossible to say if it will be its savior, either — at least not until Bundles proves that it can make money for the musicians and filmmakers it’s so eager to sign up. To date, the program has only required that downloaders give up their e-mail addresses to access downloads, if they’re asked for anything at all. Whether fans will actually part with their money to access that same content remains to be seen. The site will add the option to charge for access later this month.
“That’s the proof in the pudding,” Mason sighs. “Nothing else keeps me up at night.”