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Op-Ed: Does BitTorrent Actually Want to Empower Artists?

thom-yorke-video-650

A still from the video for Thom Yorke's song "A Brain In a Bottle."

Film executive Ruth Vitale on "the pirate’s penance" & BitTorrent's "fuzzy math."

This is a response to an op-ed, published last week (Oct. 21), from BitTorrent's Chief Content Officer Matt Mason. Below, former film executive and current executive director of CreativeFuture Ruth Vitale questions Mason and BitTorrent's methods for content ditribution and piracy mitigation.

Matt Mason must have a guilty conscience.

“We cannot accept this,” he writes –- apparently without irony -- in a Billboard op-­ed, in reference to the state of today’s music industry, continuing:

2014 saw digital music sales decline by 13.3%. While music streaming is increasing in popularity, 75% of listeners refuse to migrate to paid subscriptions. In the industry’s struggle to keep up with the pace of Internet culture, sound quality has been sacrificed for the tech specs required by major online retailers. Albums have been stripped away until all that’s left is the single. Within this context, music has become nothing more than marketing. The 1% of artists can strike deals with Apple or Samsung to give away their content. The rest can accept a different set of terms; giving away up to 40% of their sales and 100% of their fan data, in exchange for exposure.

Matt works for BitTorrent, Inc., which shares its name with (and was founded by the guy who developed) the BitTorrent file transfer protocol that is widely used for piracy. But don’t hold your breath for any acknowledgment of his or BitTorrent’s role in the decline of a legal marketplace for music. There’s no mea culpa here.

Instead, Mason is desperately trying to convince artists that distributing their creative works through BitTorrent is commercially viable. Of course, as Chief Content Officer at BitTorrent, that’s his job. It must be a really difficult one. On the one hand, BitTorrent boasts 170 million users. That’s a big number. On the other hand, studies have shown that virtually 100% of all of the files shared on networks using BitTorrent are likely unauthorized. People do not generally save up their money for a shopping spree at BitTorrent, because everything is "free."

I call it “BitTorrent Math” -- where 170 million users times "free" somehow equals artists getting paid.

As I wrote back in July, before BitTorrent launched its so­-called “pay gate”: If there’s one thing that every successful business model needs, legacy or otherwise, it’s paying customers.

Mason is much more sanguine. In his piece, he piles on the platitudes:

  • The music is the music.
  • Art is not an ad.
  • Art is not disposable. It's durable.
  • Creativity is always part of culture, never apart from it.
  • Big ideas should never be reduced into bytes or boxes.

And my favorite: There are no gatekeepers.

He forgot this one: The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.

BitTorrent has failed in the past to build a system that pays artists for their work. This time they are way behind the competition.

Mason writes:

On Sept 26, in collaboration with Thom Yorke, we released Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes as a means of handing back control of Internet commerce back to creators and fans. This -- the web -- is the last record store. But -- at 2 million downloads and counting -- Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is only the first record. The next one, ten, or ten million, could be yours.

Related

Notice he says 2 million downloads, not 2 million paid downloads. One has to wonder: How many people actually paid the $6 dollars for the album? And since BitTorrent takes 10 percent of its Bundle sales, doesn’t that make BitTorrent one of these dreaded gatekeepers?

Thom Yorke has every right to enter into a distribution deal with BitTorrent or any other distributor. He also has every right to give his music away for free. That’s an artist’s choice.

BitTorrent has taken that choice away from countless artists.

That is why the release of one artist’s album on BitTorrent -- even if two million fans paid for it -- is not a “means of handing back control of Internet commerce back to creators and fans.” I was raised Catholic, buddy. Absolution doesn’t come so easy.

We know who took control of Internet commerce away from creators: BitTorrent... and others who profit from stolen creative works. Despite all the damage they have done to creators over the years, BitTorrent is reticent to condemn piracy and refuses to use any of their technological know-how to reduce it.

As far as “handing control of Internet commerce” back to fans goes, BitTorrent is late to the game. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 70 legal digital platforms for music and over 100 for film and television. Fans and audiences have legal search tools available here, here, here, and here, to name a few. Turns out there's a thriving legal marketplace with lots of those “gatekeepers” BitTorrent so despises.

In a world where music is now ubiquitous, instantaneous, and often free -- licensed on streaming sites that some musicians view with justifiable skepticism -- does Mason really think he's "handing control of Internet commerce" back to fans? When music derives more than two thirds of its revenues from all those legitimate sources, how is that claim remotely credible?

Today, on a wide variety of platforms, creators and fans are getting together online, in places where audiences can get the digital access they want to music, films, and television shows, and where creators can give permission for their work to be used and be compensated for it.

Matt Mason and BitTorrent need creators for their redemption. If it means more artists getting paid for their time, energy, and talent, I am all for it. The question is: With all the other new and emerging ways to legally distribute content, using tools that respect creators’ rights rather than take them away, do creators really need BitTorrent?

Disclosure: After my last op­-ed on BitTorrent that ran in July, Matt Mason reached out to me and requested a meeting. I wanted to know if BitTorrent would do anything to prevent the misuse of their protocol for piracy, so I accepted. While the meeting was cordial, it was immediately clear that BitTorrent is not interested in doing the one thing that could really help artists, which is focusing their resources on finding technical solutions to the problem it created.

Ruth Vitale is executive director of CreativeFuture. She has more than three decades' experience at the vanguard of independent film production and distribution, including as founder and co-president of Paramount Classics and as president of Fine Line Features. Ruth's resume includes a stint as president of UBU Productions’ feature film division, she has served as senior vice president of production for United Artists and as president of production for Vestron Pictures. Most recently, she was president of First Look Pictures and the owner of consultancy business The Film Collective.

Billboard welcomes responsible commentary. Please email the editor with ideas and pitches at andrew.flanagan@billboard.com.


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