On September 26, Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke put out a new solo album, Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes. As is increasingly the case with Yorke’s output, interest in the music he released was in some ways secondary to the method by which he did so: The album was the first paid release for BitTorrent, Inc.’s Bundle service, a new attempt by the San Francisco-based tech firm to associate their name with legal, paid distribution of copyrighted material.
As officials at the company, including chief content officer Matt Mason, are quick to point out, there’s no reason the company shouldn’t be associated with law-abiding citizens and legal commerce. After all, BitTorrent, Inc. has never been sued for copyright infringement, and actively works with the RIAA and the MPAA to combat piracy. And, as Mason likes to remind people, the company has worked in the past with prominent artists like Madonna, Moby, Eddie Izzard, and dozens of others to release free promotional materials through the Bundle program. There’s no need for the company to “go legit”—it started there, and it’s stayed there.
But the fact remains that BitTorrent does have a public-relations crisis on its hands. In some ways, the company is a victim of its own success, which has pitted it in a battle for its corporate image against its most prominent user base. The release of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is BitTorrent’s latest salvo in that battle, using Yorke’s prestige and fame to reinforce the message it desperately needs people to internalize: BitTorrent doesn’t equal piracy.
Here’s some quick background: BitTorrent is both the name of a file-sharing protocol, developed in 2001 by programmer Bram Cohen, and the company Cohen founded to monetize his invention. In brief, the protocol works by taking large files and breaking them into small chunks, which are then distributed to, and downloaded from, a wide network of computers. By splitting up the downloads, the protocol relieves the strain of grabbing large files from a single, centralized server, massively reducing bandwidth costs and improving speeds. This, of course, makes it absolutely perfect for illegally passing along copyrighted materials to you and your thousand closest friends.
It’s not the kind of argument that wins over music and film executives who view digital pirates as barbarians at the gates, but the adoption of BitTorrent by the pirate community is actually a major testament to the protocol’s usefulness. After all, the majority of pirates are tech-savvy and smart, and they use BitTorrent because it’s one of the easiest, best ways to move large volumes of data around the Internet. And they’re not the only ones: Facebook and Twitter both use the protocol to update the software on their server farms, and Blizzard Entertainment distributes updates to players of their ridiculously popular World Of Warcraft using a BitTorrent-powered download client. Even NASA has used the service, distributing gorgeous, high-resolution images of Earth to interested viewers.
But for many people in positions of power within the industries that could most benefit from the protocol’s wider adoption, the company’s name (and signature service) are still tainted by associations with piracy. For those people, the terms “BitTorrent” or “torrent” are synonymous with copyright infringement, often literally used as a verb meaning “to illegally download.” The format has been stigmatized by content providers, to the point that many companies ban it from work computers, and last year Google shut down extensions for their Chrome browser that allowed users to search for torrents.
When asked if the company had considered changing its name to create a distance from these toxic associations, Mason answered that such changes had been considered in the past, but, “[BitTorrent]’s not just a brand name, it’s kind of a layer of the Internet. It’s a layer of the Internet that we operate at,” adding that the company’s entire philosophy and product line is based around the protocol. Even if the company changed its name, it would still be indelibly associated with BitTorrent. Thus, its willingness to wage a war to decouple both itself, and its namesake tech, from mental images of digital theft, is instead an effort to replace them with the legitimacy of legally purchased content.
Which brings us back to Thom Yorke, a walking font of legitimacy, and pioneer in the field of digital music distribution. In 2007, Yorke and Radiohead grabbed worldwide attention by releasing In Rainbows as a pay-what-you-want download. The band has never released exact data about how much In Rainbows earned (though Yorke has stated that the album was a financial success), but money was always beside the point. The band was making a statement about the flexibility and power of self-publishing, in the wake of their separation from music label EMI.
As critics pointed out at the time, it’s easy to claim artists can make money without the support of a major label when you’re one of the biggest bands in the world, with massive resources to promote and support a digital distribution scheme. But in the subsequent years, no other major musical acts have followed Yorke’s honesty-box model—even Radiohead went back to a standard fixed-price model for 2011’s The King Of Limbs. Yet according to BitTorrent’s Mason, the success of In Rainbows was Yorke’s reason for proposing that Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes be BitTorrent’s first paid Bundle: The artist—who originally became connected to the company through long-time Radiohead producer Nigel Godrich—wanted to create a system where In Rainbows’ distribution model could be scaled down so that any band could use it, distributing their own music without a studio’s interference, and reaping the majority of the profits. (BitTorrent got 10 percent of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes’ $6 asking price, but the company’s cut will vary from Bundle to Bundle and artist to artist.)
It’s a nice idea, and consistent with Yorke’s long-held beliefs about the music business. But it also hints at the place where Yorke and BitTorrent’s goals diverge. While the company is clearly happy for the street cred it gets by working with the king of the self-published musicians, and for the hordes of indie artists who will presumably follow in Yorke’s Bundled footsteps, BitTorrent also has no qualms about courting major corporations and studios—in fact, it’ll need them if it wants to achieve the profitable ubiquity it seeks. In some ways, the Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes release reads like an audition, an attempt to show major players in the music, movie, and game industries that the company’s technology is safe, and can deliver massive numbers of paid, legal downloads, without the crashes or technical glitches that have plagued other large digital releases—for instance, the incident earlier this year when De La Soul released their entire catalog on Dropbox, crashing the file-sharing service almost immediately.
But Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes is a first step, not a knockout punch. Yorke is a big name with small file sizes—and with more than 500,000 downloads of the torrent file so far, the album ably makes the case that BitTorrent can mobilize the masses to at least try out its format—but if the company wants to make itself invaluable to the industries it’s poised to profit from, it’ll need a bigger demonstration of the protocol’s raw data transmission power. Pirates regularly use BitTorrent to transmit 10s and 100s of gigabytes of data at a time, and BitTorrent needs to make a proportional demonstration to potential adopters: A Bundle releasing an independent film, along with supplemental features, from a well-known director—or, perhaps, a major, well-promoted collaboration with indie games distributor Humble Bundle, which already uses BitTorrent to distribute files—would be better for those purposes than a 200 megabyte bundle of MP3s and a music video.
If BitTorrent, Inc. is going to win its fight for mainstream acceptance, it’ll be by blowing past the image war it finds itself trapped in. The company can’t just convince industry figures that the protocol is benign (although that’s a necessary first step); it needs to make the case that BitTorrent, with its reduction to costs and increase in download speeds, is the next step forward in the future of mainstream digital distribution.
But it’ll have to move quickly, because every day more illicit files will inevitably be posted and shared via the technology the company draws its name from, pulling the narrative inexorably back toward the idea that BitTorrent does, in fact, equal piracy. Even now, there’s a healthy torrent of Tomorrow’s Modern Boxes posted at notorious torrent tracker The Pirate Bay, with thousands of people happily passing along Yorke and BitTorrent’s attempt at profitable, legitimate music distribution to each other—illegally, and for free.