Louis CK has a new show which I have started watching, “Horace and Pete”. I love his licensing model for the show. You can stream it or download episodes once you have paid for them. HD or SD, your choice. He has a very simple license:
You can download the video here. Once you’ve got it, it’s yours to do with as you like: sync it to your Zune, stream it over wi-fi to your spouse, burn it to DVD, etc.
Sure, there is copyright law involved here with its presumptions but this is how content should be released. People should be able to pay a reasonable amount of money for content they want to watch or listen to. Then, once they have paid, they should be able to watch or listen to it on whichever device they want.
The only restriction should be not to re-sell or re-share it (well, unless the content creator decides to embrace Creative Commons licensing or something similarly permissive – which works too).
Instead the Entertainment Industry opted for a business model that just about discourages people from buying its products by using stupid geographical and format restrictions. Imagine if the industry gave everyone an easy option to buy and download whatever they wanted to watch or listen to and consume that on whichever device they wanted? Boy, if they did that, the industry may just thrive.
In the meantime, I’m a big fan of people like Louis CK who actively works to make it easier for people to buy their content.
Sites like The Pirate Bay and other services that facilitate copyright infringement are ruining BitTorrent and the open Web for the rest of us, although not for the reason you may think. Sure, copyright infringement is a problem and it probably has a negative impact on many artists who rely on legitimate channels and royalty payments to earn an income off their work. That said, copyright infringement isn’t necessarily the Ultimate Evil that the entertainment industry would want you to think. There are many examples of artists who have thrived when their content was “pirated”, but that is another story.
This post is about a development that bothers me because I think it is ultimately harmful to the Web we would want to have. The Verge published a report today titled “The Pirate Bay now lets you stream torrents from your browser” which describes how the infamous torrent search engine/tracker has added support for the Torrents Time browser plugin that will enable users to stream content from TPB in their browser.
The best-known torrent site in the world now streams pirated content too. The Pirate Bay has added support for Torrents Time, a plugin that lets users stream torrents directly inside their browser. There’s no need to download the torrent itself, or a BitTorrent client, or even the actual content — then lets the whole process run inside Firefox, Internet Explorer, or Chrome, on either Windows or OS X. The system is currently in beta, and has all the usual problems of pirated torrents (namely bad image quality and the need to wait for peers to seed the content), but it’s still an extremely simple system.
BitTorrent is not inherently evil
The plugin itself isn’t a problem. Neither is the ability to stream content using the BitTorrent protocol in your browser. In fact, it is a very good thing. What is problematic is that this comes from TPB and “Pirate Bay” is synonymous with “piracy” (it isn’t an accident that it is called The Pirate Bay).
Torrents have become associated with content “theft” (a poor metaphor but it works for the entertainment industry). More people probably associate torrenting with “free” downloads than associate it with a legitimate and powerful peer-to-peer distribution protocol that can, and does, empower content creators. The tragic result of these associations includes instances like this:
As our beta users will know, our peer-to-peer browser supports this mission by making the opening of content published as torrents very simple. One of the ways that it does this is by treating the BitTorrent protocol just like HTTP (HyperText Transfer Protocol), so that visiting a Torrent is just like visiting a webpage.
You see, HTTP is great if your web page is simple text and small images. But the volume and size of data is vastly larger on today’s Internet than when HTTP was first implemented in the 1990s. The key advantage that BitTorrent has over HTTP is that it handles the heavy lifting – moving large sets of data – without reliance on a central server. This provides faster data transfers, better network management, and no single choke points.
Unfortunately the range of legitimate uses for the BitTorrent protocol are largely ignored because of the protocol’s bad reputation. BitTorrent Sync, for example, is a terrific option for sharing files securely. It is a peer-to-peer service that bypasses the cloud and is pretty fast. It can be used to share infringing content, sure, but it works really well to just share files between devices; share photos with friends and transfer large files between production machines.
So what has been happening is that the entertainment industry has been making a lot of noise about all the “piracy” that is going on using BitTorrent and the inevitable conclusion the industry has been pushing is that BitTorrent is a bad technology. It’s a bit like the arguments that VHS was evil because it allowed people to record TV programs. It’s a convenient argument because people do use BitTorrent to download stuff they shouldn’t be downloading but there is more to it.
The industry should recognise the role it has played in creating a marketplace that is fairly hostile to its consumers. It is changing, very slowly, but it still remains very much a balkanised marketplace where geographical restrictions limit what consumers can pay for, even when they pay. Look at the recent discussion about Netflix and its campaign against VPN services as it opens its service up to more countries. Ultimately, I think technology will render the current distribution models largely irrelevant and force a more sensible change.
BitTorrent is an amazing technology and can be used to really grow and maintain the open Web. As a decentralised and peer-to-peer technology, it is enormously empowering and flexible. Artists are already using BitTorrent Bundles as alternative content distribution options and offering fans direct access to the content they love. Fans, in turn, support these artists and the entertainment industry’s claims that it is slowly dying because of all of this “piracy” is shown to be a lie. Techdirt covers many of these sorts of stories, including this case study from almost 2 years ago titled “Artists Embracing, Rather Than Fighting, BitTorrent Seeing Amazing Results”.
The Pirate Bay is peeing on the Commons
So, back to The Pirate Bay. By enthusiastically embracing and bragging about how it is enabling users to download unlicensed content (what the entertainment industry prefers to call “pirate content”), it is reinforcing the very well-funded industry perception of technologies of BitTorrent as being metaphorical tools of the devil and a big target for law enforcement and legislators.
Sure, this is a business for TPB but they are basically peeing on the Commons and ruining BitTorrent for the rest of us. We need BitTorrent and other technologies because they help make the Web more open and connected. They keep the indie Web alive and a measure of control and privacy in users’ hands. BitTorrent also enables indie artists to create and share their content and earn a living from it. Sure, you can use it to “pirate” music, movies or other stuff but that isn’t all there is to BitTorrent.
The Pirate Bay and others like it are becoming just as much a threat to the open Web as poorly informed regulators and closed platforms.
I dusted off Transmission this evening, updated it to the latest version and took it out for a spin. I am tormenting Ubuntu 11.10 just to see how effective BitTorrent can be as a file sharing service. Its great, works beautifully thanks to the many people who are seeding the file and that is one of the catches. When it works well, it works brilliantly.
Of course BitTorrent is pretty popular with those who prefer not to pay for content like TV shows and movies but I have to wonder if there are effective and legitimate uses for the technology? I suspect a number of apps and services uses BitTorrent under the hood and that isn’t always transparent to users but where else is it used effectively?
I also started thinking about some potentially interesting uses for BitTorrent. Imagine an artist seeding albums using BitTorrent? Actually, you don’t really need to imagine that as a hypothetical. NIN did that with Ghosts a while back. Imagine if smaller artists started seeding their albums and changing their revenue model. Its probably being done somewhere and I’d love to know how that works. There must be other good case studies?