Among the (many) oddities at this year’s Republican National Convention was the presence of a tiny news crew from BitTorrent, who interviewed Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) about his thoughts on the subject of Pokemon GO.
Lee, a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee that five years earlier heard testimonies from impassioned copyright holders savaging BitTorrent, gamely played along, saying he was disappointed to find that there were no Pokemons within the U.S. Senate Chamber. If Lee didn’t know what to make of the interview, he wasn’t alone. The company’s presence at the conventions, ostensibly as a journalistic enterprise no less, prompted New York Times columnist Andrew Rosenthal to wonder: “What on Earth Is BitTorrent News?”
BitTorrent’s transformation from technology provider to media platform over the last few years has left many puzzled. It seemed as though every few months the San Francisco company was announcing a new media initiative. Last month, it was the appointment of former CNN producer Harrison Bohrman as News Director, followed shortly after by the launch of BitTorrent News at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.
Another month, another pivot. This month, it’s the BitTorrent Discovery Fund. The company today (Aug. 9) announced the initiative, which will award cash grants to as many as 25 creators this year, giving away between $2,500 and $100,000 for each selected artist to use for marketing and distributing their work. Any artist working in any medium can apply, as long as there is a music or video component in the work they want to market.
Technology companies from Facebook to Netflix are spending millions to bring original content to their respective platforms. BitTorrent’s vice president of Creative Initiatives Straith Schreder says the intent of the Discovery Fund is different from other programs in Silicon Valley, which often seek ownership of the content or control over its distribution.
“We don’t want to buy content,” Schreder says in an interview with Billboard. “First of all, it’s not content. It’s art. Secondly, if you make it, it belongs to you. You keep your rights. We’re here to help with marketing and discovery.”
To be sure, there are plenty who doubt the company’s sincerity in helping artists and creators, including best-selling author Scott Turow, the RIAA and film executive Ruth Vitale, all of whom have expressed wariness towards a company that maintains, and is named for, the open source BitTorrent file transfer protocol that is the standard method for online pirates to distribute and acquire -- simultaneously, which is the protocol's central stroke of genius -- bootleg copies of music, movies, books and other digital files. Which begs the question: just what is BitTorrent Inc.? And what does it want to be?
Company vs. Technology
BitTorrent -- the technology -- was created in 2001 by Bram Cohen as a way to leverage individual computers to help quickly distribute large files by allowing a downloader to pull microscopic pieces of a file from many people all at once. Rather than relying on central servers to host and disseminate files, the BitTorrent protocol taps people’s personal computers within the same geographic area (called peers) to do the work. Cohen released BitTorrent as an open source technology, and it quickly became popular with pirates.
Cohen created BitTorrent Inc. in 2004 to maintain his protocol. Because of the open source nature of BitTorrent, anyone is free to use the protocol and use it however they wish. Similar to other open source software such as Linux, neither Cohen nor BitTorrent Inc. can control its use by others.
Meanwhile, Cohen's company generated revenue by helping corporate clients develop custom versions of the BitTorrent protocol. The process since been embraced by large corporations to help transfer massive amounts of data. Microsoft Corp., Amazon.com, and the scientists who collaborated on the Large Hadron Collider have used versions of BitTorrent. In its early years, Spotify also used a version of the peer-to-peer protocol to stream music. A spokesman for the privately held company declined to share BitTorrent's financials, but said the 100-person enterprise is currently profitable.
BitTorrent the company, however, has been careful over the years to distance itself from the pirates who use open source versions of the protocol for illegal file sharing. At times, particularly in the early to mid-2000s, the illegals uses of the file-sharing protocol overshadowed its legitimate uses during high-profile lawsuits and court prosecutions of digital piracy. Asked in a recent interview with Billboard why the company continues to use the BitTorrent name, the company’s co-CEO, Jeremy Johnson, said the brand continues to resonate with audiences. "The BitTorrent brand is important to us, and we're proud of it," he said. Rather than abandon the name, the company chose to embrace it. "When we release products, we're expressing our opinion of how BitTorrent should be used, changing the conversation around the brand. It's not something we should run away from."
Johnson defined his company as having three priorities. “First, we want to express a point of view for how our technology should be best used,” Johnson said. “Second, we want to engage with our audience and connect them with creators of all types. And third, we want to help creators publish their work, grow their reach and monetize.”
Media Friend or Foe?
In 2012, the company began helping artists distribute their work to fans. That effort started in the company’s marketing department as a way to showcase the technology, a demonstration of BitTorrent’s potential use for good.
Two years later, Madonna, Ellie Goulding, No Doubt, Mariah Carey, Green Day and others took up BitTorrent’s offer, releasing their music as “BitTorrent Bundles” that fans can download. The Bundles contained free music, plus bonus content that fans could unlock by giving artists their email addresses. Artists also got to own any data collected during their campaigns. In 2014, BitTorrent launched its first paid bundle, Thom Yorke’s album Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes, which sold for $6 a bundle. Yorke kept 90 percent of the revenue, with the remaining 10 percent going to BitTorrent. (That's an even more artist-friendly split than the famously grassroots Bandcamp, which takes 15 percent of digital sales.)
What started as a marketing program eventually turned into a full-fledged product, and the company shifted its resources accordingly. In January this year, it spun off Sync, its server-less cloud business. Three months later, it brought in Johnson and Robert Delamar as co-CEOs, each of whom have extensive media experience, along with New York entertainment attorney David Chidekel as head of business development to source and spearhead content deals. And it opened an office in Los Angeles to better service artists. To date, more than 36,000 artists have released their work using BitTorrent’s Bundle platform, adding 6,000 artists in the last seven months.
And in May, it launched BitTorrent Live, an app featuring 16 channels of live streaming content from independent video producers including Open News TV, OANN, AWE, Fast & Fun Box, ArtHouse, Fightbox, NewsMax, TWiT, Clubbing TV, Pursuit Channel, One World Sports, Heroes, NUsic TV, France 24, and NASA TV, as well as BitTorrent’s current events news channel, BTN.
Show Me the Money
Now BitTorrent is busy building out the third part of Johnson’s mission; reach and monetization. It introduced advertising across its products, sharing 70 percent of the revenue with artists. Its ad network currently serves up more than a billion monthly impressions from 170 million active users of company-owned applications, not counting apps created by other companies using the BitTorrent protocol. “We see this as a huge source of growth,” Johnson said.
In addition, BitTorrent promises to add subscriptions, sponsorship and pay-per-view options for artists distributing work on BitTorrent Live (for live streams) or BitTorrent Now (for on-demand downloads). And as of today, it’s also giving away straight cash to artists who help seed its fledgling networks with fresh music or video.
That includes unusual people like 23-year-old Sara Price, X Games medalist and Motocross athlete, who in July became the first woman to race in a Stadium Super Truck event, driving more than 130 miles per hour in a 600-horsepower truck featuring the BitTorrent black and white logo. “Honestly, if you’ve been watching the moves they’ve been making the past few years, I thought they were awesome,” Price writes in an email to Billboard. “They are real, badass, and raw, and I want to capture that as a female in motor sports."
On the surface, BitTorrent's media play looks similar to Red Bull or Vice in tone and content -- slightly irreverent and rebellious, but also earnest in its pursuit of gritty, underground culture. Beneath the hood, however, is the technology engine that still lies at the heart of BitTorrent. In its current stage of evolution, the company more resembles YouTube four years ago when YouTube opened a recording studio in Los Angeles, and began to more actively collaborate with artists, blurring the line between traditional media company and technology platform.
For now, BitTorrent is leaning towards being a technology company, one with a blazing fast protocol that promises live transmission speeds comparable to satellites at a fraction of the cost. To sell that technology, it's decided to build out a media platform. "More than anything, we're doing this to inspire publishers and to showcase what our technology can do," Johnson said.
Sara Price just prior to her final race at the July 17th Speed Energy Stadium Super Truck event in Toronto. Credit: Sara Price.
The Internet Wants Quirky
In seeking to change change the conversation around its brand away from piracy and towards its efforts to build a platform, the company and its fresh crew of media savvy executives are looking to a new generation to establish their core audience. Bohrman, BitTorrent’s news director, described that audience as “a young, diverse, and smart... engaged online and can swing elections.”
That can mean erudite discussions about how the Libertarian Party fits into the upcoming Presidential Election to a tongue-in-cheek mock interview with Pokemon character Charmander backstage at the Republican National Convention.
“At first, people walked by our area and didn’t know what to make of us,” Bohrman said. “By the end [of the convention], they were used to us.”