Poster child for piracy, BitTorrent wants to go legit

Thom Yorke concert

Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke turned a few heads when he turned to BitTorrent last week to exclusively distribute his new album, “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes.” And yet six days later, it hit a million downloads.

With that sort of traction, BitTorrent argues creators of all stripes should distribute and monetize their content through its bundle platform. And it already has one major video deal in the works.

Fair or not, BitTorrent remains synonymous with content piracy for much of the entertainment industry. But the software company behind the eponymous protocol has been working hard to dispel that perception, positioning itself as an ally of content creators, primarily musicians, in an industry dominated by gatekeepers.  

Now BitTorrent is asserting that its content aspirations extend beyond music: With the “BitTorrent bundle,” a downloadable media pack creators can use to distribute their work “without selling your soul,” the company aims to becomes the go-to distribution medium for premium video content.

“We’re able to do a big release of an original series,” Matt Mason, chief content officer at BitTorrent, told Digiday. “But regardless of the size of the creator, they have access to the platform to upload their content and sell to the audience as well.”

At least one veteran producer has bought into BitTorrent’s vision. Marco Weber of Rapid Eye Studios is working on a post-apocalyptic series, “Children of the Machine,” which he plans to distribute as a BitTorrent bundle. The debut episode will arrive next spring, with an additional eight episodes slated for fall 2015. The pilot will also air on ConTV, Cinedigm’s upcoming Comic-Con digital network, according to Weber. (A teaser for the series is embedded below.)

On BitTorrent, “Children of the Machine” viewers will be able to choose between a free, ad-supported version, or a paid, ad-free version — options Weber chose, rather than a mandate from BitTorrent. For paid subscriptions, BitTorrent will keep 10 percent of the revenue the show generates, handing Weber 90 percent.

Weber “is interested in bypassing the usual channels and being able to distribute this directly to fans,” said Paul Steketee, managing partner at The Addressomo Corporation, which is working with Rapid Eye Studios and BitTorrent to market the series and foster brand partnerships.

“Using this series as the launch of [BitTorrent’s] video platform is not only a good way to get this content out there but to let people know that this bundle distribution platform is available for any kind of premium content like it.”

BitTorrent already has impressive traction in the music scene. With bundles from prominent artists like Moby, Pretty Lights and De La Soul, BitTorrent has seen over 120 million bundle downloads since the platform’s May 2013 launch.

It’s just beginning to edge into the paid-content world: BitTorrent is the exclusive distributor of Yorke’s “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes,” the first BitTorrent bundle with a premium pay-gate. A week after its Sept. 26 release, the base bundle (one song and music video) had accrued over 1.3 million downloads. Mason declined to reveal how many people have paid $6 for the premium bundle but said he’s been “incredibly happy” with the conversion rates. (The bundle is embedded below, enabling you to stream the free content or pay for the premium songs).

High-quality exclusives like “Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes” help legitimize BitTorrent’s platform, which is imperative for the company as it tries to shake its association with content piracy. While BitTorrent as a company has never endorsed or directly facilitated piracy, the open-source BitTorrent protocol is regularly used to pirate content, an association that could damage its appeal to content creators, said several Web video experts.

“It’s tough to take down the pirate flag and put up the good-guy flag,” said Bernard Gershon, president of digital consultancy GershonMedia. And because bundles are downloadable, “If I’m a content creator, I’m going to ask, can little Johnny in Bulgaria share my content with his friends?”

In short, yes. There are no digital rights management (DRM) restrictions on BitTorrent bundle content. “As iTunes and Amazon have learned already, DRM is a terrible user experience and doesn’t work,” said Christian Averill, BitTorrent’s director of communications.

Plenty of other questions surrounding video content remain unanswered, like how much advertising revenue BitTorrent will share with video makers, or whether video ads will be skippable. “We are still in the alpha phase with much of this, and experimenting with different iterations of the product, user flow and model,” said Mason.

While services like Spotify and Netflix have embraced subscription-based models, BitTorrent appears committed to one-off purchases for premium content, which could alienate mainstream consumers, said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson. Even if the content is free and ad-supported, he said, people don’t want to download video files these days. Other industry experts concurred.

“The standard has been created that you actually get a music file, but I don’t think it makes sense for video,” said Paul Kontonis, executive director of the Global Online Video Association.

Bundle content can be streamed, so viewers aren’t forced to download content. And BitTorrent users can embed bundles anywhere on the Web, bringing the pay-gate with the content. But both are also true of video streaming platform Vimeo, which offers a similar “on demand” program that enables creators to sell their work online and keep 90 percent of the revenue. The key difference: Vimeo is already home to a vibrant community of video makers (though it has issues of its own, like poor on-site discoverability).

While BitTorrent’s pitch to creators is similar to Vimeo’s — sell directly to your audience and control your destiny — BitTorrent has plenty of other competitors in the premium video space. As it seeks more high-quality video content, it’ll bump up against YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and others. But it has one major asset: its large user base.

“It’s a highly competitive marketplace. Other than Vimeo, there are dozens of places getting into the ad-supported and subscription content market for online and mobile video consumption,” said Gershon. “BitTorrent definitely has some odds stacked against it, but the fact that it has such a big monthly user base means it certainly has a shot.”

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