The trouble with torrents and legal music downloads

NMS screengrab.jpgI mentioned on Facebook that I had watched a segment on BBC Click about BitTorrents the other day. The segment was focussed on BitTorrent downloads and about how some BitTorrent site operators are working on legitimizing their services. While there is no doubt that there is a considerable amount of piracy being conducted using BitTorrent sites, the segment got me thinking again about the availability of music online, particularly here in South Africa. I emphasise South Africa because some of the more privileged and more developed markets have the benefit of Apple’s iTunes Store and some even have access to Amazon’s music download store too.

Here in South Africa there are very few satisfactory options available. Perhaps the best of the bunch is the Nokia Music Store which gives Windows users access to a fairly wide range of music available for download. The music sold on the Nokia Music Store is restricted by digital rights management software which limits the platforms that can be used to access it and the flexibility users have with that music. Otherwise it is probably the best option for South Africans looking for both popular and more obscure music.

There are other options that are accessible to South Africans both in South Africa and internationally and their versatility and accessible ranges vary. One source of music (and other media, for that matter) which is probably as diverse as any online music store is the peer to peer network of BitTorrent users who share their media which they may have ripped from their CD and DVD collections of which they may have obtained from other users and re-share. This content is frequently infringing on someone’s intellectual property rights (usually copyright) and is illegal. Using BitTorrent tracker websites like the now infamous The Pirate Bay anyone using a freely available BitTorrent client can download a range of content including these illicit copies of music, movies and TV series that someone, somewhere has made a digital copy of and “seeded” onto the network. Popular content can spread virally.

This understandably has content owners deeply concerned. This network isn’t dependent on central hubs as sources of this illegal content. While there are Bittorrent trackers which are instrumental in directing users to where all the content is, the content itself is on the users’ computers and servers and is shared between them. It is a fairly robust system which rewards popular content choices with fast download speeds and a number of sources of varying quality and reliability.

Content owners’ concerns include the potential loss of revenue from what would otherwise be legitimate sales from authorised retail outlets; loss of income for content creators who rely on royalties for their livelihood and the simple fact of content piracy and flagrant disregard of music licensing restrictions. The arguments against BitTorrent are not always persuasive but there is some merit to many of them. One of the challenges facing the music industry (as well as other content-based industries) is that their customers are increasingly resisting traditional sales channels and are looking for more convenient alternatives, regardless of the legalities. I believe that the majority of these people seeking alternatives are not seeking to avoid paying for content they consume (although there are clearly many people who have no compunction pirating content and not paying) but they simply lack the options that give them the flexibility and convenience they desire.

BitTorrent logo.pngThis, to me at least, is indicative of an industry that is slow to change and address its customers’ needs. BitTorrent Inc (the company set up to oversee the BitTorrent technology – if I understand it correctly) has been working with content owners to deliver their content using BitTorrent legitimately. The idea is to harness BitTorrent’s strengths to open up powerful new distribution channels for content owners and, at the same time, give users more flexible access to quality content. This seems to be a growing trend but we still don’t see broader BitTorrent adoption by to wider content owner ecosystem. BitTorrent Inc has demonstrated a capability to adapt this technology for a commercial use and yet we are still faced with restrictions like DRM, regional licences and content simply not being made available.

Just like the data routes around obstructions and breakdowns in the Internet itself, users will find a way around the restrictions and hurdles content owners put up. One of the ways they circumvent these limitations is by using BitTorrent to freely download the content they would otherwise be prepared to pay for, were they given the opportunity to do so using a framework that better suited their needs. Another way users get around these limitations is creating illegal iTunes Store accounts and disguising their locations to access content restricted to specific regions.

Rather than seeing this as a terrifying and growing piracy trend, content owners should take their cue from these trends and adapt their business models to take advantage of these technologies. There is an opportunity here to reach out to substantial numbers of potential customers who are yearning for a legitimate and convenient option. Until then efforts to stop this sort of illegal file sharing will yield very limited results and possibly alienate even more users. In the end the industry will suffer. It is a numbers game at this point.

Published by Paul Jacobson

Enthusiast, writer, Happiness Engineer at @automattic. I take photos too. Passionate about my wife, Gina and #proudDad.

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