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F & F


Blog Torrent and Participatory Culture
posted by scubacuda on Thursday August 26, @01:23AM
from the superseeding-threats-to-free-culture dept.
Digital Entertainment In this GrepLaw interview, Downhill Battle's Nicholas Reville describes the success (and takedown) of SP2Torrent.com, alternative ways to buy music, what indie musicians think about filesharing, and real ways to counter threats to creativity and an open culture. Those excited about the possibilities of Bittorrent will especially appreciate Downhill Battle's Blog Torrent, an easy-to-install program that will dramatically simplify the creation, posting, and seeding of new torrents. 

Hi Nicholas. Microsoft recently sent Downhill Battle a cease-and-desist letter regarding an unathorized distribution of Service Pack 2. Tell us about that.

After reading in The Inquirer that Microsoft was planning to limit initial access to Service Pack 2, we made a site called sp2torrent.com to demonstrate that filesharing technology can be useful even to giant companies. We included a hash key so that people could be sure that they were getting the appropriate file. As we say on the site, Congress is literally considering legislation right now that would outlaw filesharing technology (the INDUCE Act). Explaining, and better yet, demonstrating, the potential of peer-to-peer is crucial in the fight to keep it legal. If we do manage to keep it legal, I expect that we'll see more and more companies using filesharing to distribute their products over the next several years.

Anyway, a few days after we put up the site, Microsoft sent takedown notices to two ISPs we were using and we decided to remove the torrent files and links and replace them with an explanation of why we felt the project was a big success. There's plenty of legal ambiguity around the issue of providing p2p links, torrent files, and even around directly distributing a file that's available for free, but we decided to keep the focus of this project on the technology demonstration rather than turning this into a legal showdown.

How was your SP2Torrent project a success?

The main goal of SP2Torrent.com was to demonstrate the usefulness p2p software, and I think we did that. We were able to get our message out to hundreds of thousands of people, many of whom have never used filesharing software. On all of these issues, the mainstream press is completely one-sided and only hears from Hollywood. Anything we can do do create a broader, more accurate picture of what these technologies are and what they can do, is helpful.

How many other cease-and-desist letters has Downhill Battle received?

Just one other, so far, but it was a big one. Along with about 180 other sites, we received a cease and desist letter from EMI Records the day before our February 24th Grey Tuesday protest.

Grey Tuesday was a protest for copyright reform, prompted by an attempt to suppress an extremely creative and critically acclaimed remix album, the Grey Album. DJ Dangermouse had made beats out of samples from the Beatles' White Album, and paired those with the a cappella's from Jay-Z's Black Album (hence the Grey Album). The New Yorker loved it, Rolling Stone loved it-- as far as I can tell, most people who heard it loved it (and if you haven't yet you should check out Banned Music). But EMI decided that DJ Dangermouse was a thief for being creative in this way and sent legal threats to him, his label, several record stores, and even several websites that made it available for free. They weren't just trying to keep people from selling it, they were trying to keep people from hearing it. It's clear-cut censorship, and I think it's a perfect example of how media and entertainment corporations use copyright law as a cudgel to beat down creative freedom.

So we put out a call for action one week in advance, and within six days we already had over 180 sites planning to host the album, and hundreds more turning their websites grey in solidarity. That's when we all got the cease and desist letter from EMI threatening to sue unless we called off the protest. We knew from the start that we had to go through with the protest, but we didn't know we'd have so much company. We responded to with EMI's demands, and then posted our response to them explaining why the protest would go ahead. Amazingly, of all the sites that received the cease and desist, only a few decided that they couldn't take the risk and meanwhile even more decided to join the protest after they saw EMI's attempt to stop us.

Is there anything about Bit Torrent that helps foster a participatory culture?

It can definitely be a part of big step forward. 'Participatory culture' is how we've started thinking about the intersection of all these phenomenons like blogs, filesharing networks, wikis, and just the web in general. They all make it easier for people to create and distribute art/ideas and also let people act as filters and editors. But we're really at the very, very beginning of all this. The shift that we're going to see from the current top-down culture model will be absolutely revolutionary. As overused as that term is, there's really no other word that captures the magnitude of what's going on here.

As for BitTorrent specifically, searching for content on napster-style search and download clients really sucks and, on its own, creates a huge bias towards corporate content that people already know about. On the other hand, websites and blogs organize and present content so that you can discover things you didn't even know you were looking for. Since BitTorrent uses web-based links, it has the potential to fit very well with blogs and content management systems while making it possible for anyone to offer very large files without worrying about bandwidth.

How has your BitTorrent Battle gone? What kind of support have you gotten? And how much more might you need?

People have technology to easily record and edit music and videos on their computers, but there's still no good way to distribute that content without pretty serious web hosting and some know-how. This is especially true if what you make might get popular-- and on the internet you never know. BitTorrent can solve this, but it has serious ease of use obstacles. Right now you need to know a decent amount about computers to run a torrent tracker on your own website and people who try to get a Bit Torrent file for the first time need to go through a few avoidable steps that can discourage them.

We think we can solve most of these problems. We've started developing software called Blog Torrent (formerly known as Battle Torrent) that will make Bit Torrent easier to install and run on a website and dramatically simplify the creation, posting, and seeding of new torrents. It will also improve on the "Easy Downloader" BitTorrent wrapper that we made for bannedmusic.org, which automatically installs BitTorrent and begins the downloading a torrent.

Basically, we're just looking for every little way to cut out steps and make usability smoother (here's our write-up about it). Bit Torrent is a classic example of open-source software that does all the hard stuff very well but doesn't go that last mile on user interface and integration. We have a lot of good programmers working on Blog Torrent right now and we're hoping to have a release ready in a month or so. We also have some related projects that we're getting together-- there are a lot of opportunities for good programmers who care about this stuff to make a huge difference with not too much work. We're organizing all these projects at Downhill Battle Labs, which is sort of our software branch.

Connecting BitTorrent to your TV would take all of this to the next level. Right now, for example, it wouldn't be hard to put together a set-top box like a TiVo that pulled content using BitTorrent from RSS feeds onto a hard drive to be watched whenever. You could do it for cheap too: a $90 used X-Box on eBay can run linux, and it's got all the hardware you need (okay, the hard drive is a little small, but it would be plenty for a couple days worth of compressed content). And the software's already been written, it's called Torrentocracy, check it out. The trick is packaging it all up so that you don't have to be a linux hacker to make it happen.

It doesn't sound so spectacular at first, but think of how amazing it would be if something like this took off. People love to watch TV, but right now the pipe into peoples' televisions is a closed channel, controlled by a handful of bureaucratic corporations operating in an incentive structure that doesn't encourage quality. Once people start getting their TV through the internet, that channel's open, and everything that's true of websites and blogs will suddenly apply to television. Sure, people would keep watching TV shows and Hollywood movies, just as bloggers still read the Washington Post and the New York Times. But there would also be a huge opportunity for new things to sneak into the mainstream-- anything you make could suddenly end up on someone's TV. That's going to get a lot more people into the game, which means more creativity and eventually much better creative works. And if I'm watching TV in the morning while I'm eating my cereal, I would definitely check out a channel of weird internet videos and crazy flash stuff-- I mean, there's no commercials and it'd be a lot more entertaining than most things on TV.

You've come a long ways since last August. I notice that now you have some cool projects, lots of people linking to the resources on your site, and some press coverage. Tell us about that transition and growth.

We never imagined that Downhill Battle would become such a long-term project for us. When Holmes and I started the site in August 2003, we saw it as a chance to make a timely push-back against a totally one-sided debate about the future of the music industry. Now we've been sucked in to an even bigger fight for the future of our culture and the role that the internet can play in reshaping it. What started as a webpage turned into 60-hour work weeks before we new what hit us, but we care deeply about this stuff and, most of all, we're confident that our side can win.

Since Holmes and I (the cofounders) were working more than full time soon after we started, growth for us as always meant involving other people, which is tricky to do. We've had some success finding volunteers to help with specific projects, but generally it's only worked well when the people volunteering were consummate professionals. We always looking for people who can bite off a fairly large chunk of work and manage their time well. Another way to do it is to fundraise and try to find someone who will work for fraction of what they're worth because they're psyched about the cause. That has worked pretty well for us, but even a small salary is hard to pay when your only income is donations. In terms of involving lots of people in a project, it's certainly easy to involve people in a very focused action, like the Grey Tuesday protest. But as for involving a large and heterogeneous group of people in strategizing and organizing around a highly multi-dimensional and sensitive issue--I'm just convinced that the tools for that don't exist yet. We'd love to build them, and we have some ideas about how they could work, so if you're interested be in touch. But they're definitely not there yet.

Every time I visit your site, I see something that cracks me up--Barbie in a Blender, What a Crappy Present, Anti-RIAA Stickering, etc. Where do you guys get your ideas?

I guess we're all rattling off ideas to each other constantly and when we hit a good one, we do it. When you aren't trying to make money, you have a lot of flexibility to do whatever you can think of and whatever will work-- it's a big advantage that we have over our opponents, the major labels. Plus we're just way funnier than they are. We have some pretty good ideas along these lines that we're hoping to do soon, but we're extremely swamped right now... anyone want to design us a web page that looks like a professional financial services website, blue pinstripes and all? We have this super funny idea...

At the bottom left of your current site, you have a section called "Who's Getting the Job Done" and list Jessica Litman and Larry Lessig. What interesting work are they doing?

Lessig, of course, is a lawyer who's clearly at the head of the movement for more rational copyright law. He started Creative Commons, of course, but even more importantly he's framing the issue brilliantly. Lessig has a devastating lecture detailing the way that copyright law has been expanded from a tool with specific, limited uses that were designed to encourage innovation, into a huge beast that locks things up for so long that innovation is stifled. He's really a conservative on copyright in the sense that he wants to move the law back towards its original role. And that perspective is extremely important; people need to be reminded that what the free culture movement is talking about isn't some utopian futuristic dream, it's just sensible public policy that existed for centuries in America and that we desperately need to reclaim before we squander the cultural and economic benefits that the internet is handing us.

Jessica Litman is an academic but unlike most of the other people studying this issue, she has a very astute political sense. She's proposed what is probably the most politically realistic collective licensing proposal for legalizing music filesharing and making it a source of income for musicians. We see two roads ahead of us in this battle for the future of music. Jessica Litman's proposal (the EFF has made a similar one) is where we'd like to push things and what will work best for musicians and the public. These proposals, where internet users would pay $5-$10 for unlimited downloads, preserve all the benefits of the virtual music library that filesharing networks have created, and would let more musicians make a better living.

The other road, and the one we're on now, is almost open war with record label enforcement and anonymous filesharing facing off in an ever escalating arms race. Filesharing, we hope, will win that fight and it would be a major victory that levels the playing field in music and puts culture back in the hands of people rather than corporations and bureaucracies. But that road has a lot of unfortunate costs, too and we'd much rather see collective licensing. There could be a working licensing system within months if the record industry said yes-- and they'd make money too-- but when was the last time a monopolistic industry voluntarily gave up control?

I recently started using AllOfMP3.com, and through your website, I found out about Dusted Magazine, Better Propaganda, GarageBand.com, PureVolume, and hXcmp3.com. How do these outlets vary from mainstream distributors, like iTunes, Wal Mart, and Napster.

The music sites that we direct people to are some of the best demonstrations of how things can and should work. Collaboratively filtered MP3 sites can replace A&R executives, who blow millions on their usually incorrect gut instinct about whether a band will be popular. Good review sites can replace print magazines that offer reviews in exchange for ads (print payola) and review blogs can let you find someone whose taste really matches with yours or someone who can give you a personal tour of new music and stuff you may not have heard of. Dusted is unique for their commitment to never run ads; I know that's not possible (or even desirable) for everybody, but you have to admit--that's hard core. And it's yet another example of how swarms of amateurs (etymologically: doing it for the love) can compete with business on the internet.

There are also some good and fair music distribution models out there, but we think the thing the filesharing debate needs most right now is a concrete demonstration of collective licensing. It's something we've talked about doing, but it would take a major time investment to get enough indie labels on board for it to be meaningful. Pay-per-song models like iTunes destroy the freedom to explore that filesharing has always offered, and that's a bad thing for music culture and music education. No author would suggest eliminating libraries and I doubt that any musician who's grown up with filesharing would want to eliminate a tool that's given them access to so much. Furthermore, any service that doesn't take advantage of peer-to-peer distribution is wasting money that could be going into artists' pockets.

I really like your Local Ink project: enter in your zip code, write a letter, and automatically have that letter sent to the newspapers in your area. What other resources are out there for those wanting to protest what they see as threats to free culture?

There's three main ways that we see to counter threats to creativity and an open culture.

The first, and most important, is to stop giving money to the corporations that have been beating down artists, buying off radio stations, and manipulating fans for decades. Don't buy major label music and get your friends and family to stop buying as well. This isn't an endless boycott (e.g. "Boycott Walmart!"), it's a short term, endgame strategy that people need to adopt until the major label cartel starts to crumble. There are enormous pressures in the music industry towards decentralization and the only reason you have consolidation is that there's an entrenched cartel. We only need to break the cartel once and they'll never come back--and this is very close to happening. If you can stop buying CDs from major labels for one or two years, you won't have to worry about it after that-- we'll finally have real competition and a level playing field for independent music. RIAARadar.com is a tool that can give you some help on this.

The second thing you can do is to get involved to help change the public debate. Sending a letter to your local newspapers is a good way to start. Sending a fax to your Congressional representatives is another one. If you're in college, start a Free Culture Chapter at your school-- that's a student movement for copyright reform, free software, and internet freedom, and trust us, it's going to be hugely effective. And we'd love to have you sign up to hand out Downhill Battle flyers at concerts-- that's probably the funnest thing you can do.

The third thing you can do is support organizations that are fighting for these issues. You can donate to the EFF and of course we'd love to have your support for Downhill Battle. We plow ever dollar we get into our projects, you help can make a huge difference in what we get done. We're constantly struggling to have enough money to continue our work and be effective-- but we don't want to spend all our time fundraising.

Yeah, I saw a "Support FileSharing" banner on TorrentBits.org that linked back to your support page. But how do you make sure that "point, click, & protest" activism is effective? For example, if companies, state representatives, and news publications know that a letter is nothing more than a mass generated e-mail (that was most likely written by someone else), are they less inclined to take it seriously? In the end, is there any true substitute for making phone calls, sending snail mail, picketing, and/or boycotting?

There is certainly a dilution effect that happens when people can email their representatives with a single click, but I think that that effect is far outweighed by seeing that lots of people are interested, involved, and engaged even in simple ways. On the efficacy side, any congressperson will tell you that those emails or faxes, in large amounts, do have an effect. And on the user side it's great that it's working politics into people's daily habits ("check email, read Greplaw, tell a politician how I feel about something," etc.) because these minor-but-frequent political acts can be a gateway to deeper involvement--it's a natural process.

But all that having been said, we think that the internet is way behind where it could be for getting people involved with their governments. We're planning a major new spin-off project of Downhill Battle that will be focusing directly on this issue. We want to create a platform of tools that can get people more directly engaged in politics and in touch with their Senators. That doesn't mean better access to the same things-- that means really redefining the relationship between representatives and the people they represent. I know this is extremely vague and we're as skeptical as anyone about techno-futurism babble, and we'd rather not get into specifics, but let's take blogs as a quick analogy. Before blogs, you could see that the internet would change people's relationship to news since people everyone was seeing a huge increase in access to media outlets. That's basically where we are with politics, in terms with make it easier to donate and send letters and faxes-- we've juiced up the real world tools. But it was harder to predict in media how quickly blogs would come to play a major role in shaping and analyzing news coverage. We want to make tools that make that same transition for politics-- not just giving people souped up versions of the same arms-length input that they've always had, but actually getting them a lot closer to real engagement with the legislative process. We think we have some good ideas for this and we're starting to build some software. If there's a serious funder out there whose interest is piqued, please, please give us a call.

Any other organizations do you collaborate with?

We're always in touch with a bunch of organizations that are working on these issues, and some of our most interesting collaborations are in the works right now. But what we're most excited about these days is FreeCulture.org, the Student Free Culture movement that we're helping the Swarthmore Coalition for the Digital Commons get started. I did a lot of student organizing when I was in college, and I think that this could be one of the most important student movements ever. Students have more leverage than most people realize. Colleges and universities are desperate to keep them happy and a few committed students can exert tremendous influence. Furthermore, we're talking about some of the most important institutions in society, changing their behavior can be a model for the broader culture and for all the students that pass through. So what would happen if protested their college's use of Microsoft software and demanded that the computer clusters run Linux and Open Office? What would happen if students demanded that their schools pay the fee for professors to publish in open access journals, like the Public Library of Science? What if students convinced art professors and music professors and writing professors to talk about Creative Commons in their classes? These are the kinds of things that can snowball and really change society. If you're at college now, start a chapter at your school. If you're an alum of one of these schools, see what you can do to help these students get going.

You've definitely interviewed some cool musicians (of which Thievery Corporation is my favorite). What is a recurring theme that surfaces in those interviews?

Our interviews are conversations about music and the music industry with important independent musicians. It's crucial that we and everyone else hear from musicians while we're in the midst of this huge debate about what direction music should take, and we want the interview series to be a resource for people.

Standing at this intersection between art and technology, there's really a fascinating connection that comes out in the interviews between how a lot of musicians feel about music and how free, open-source software people feel about software. Proprietary software monopolies like Microsoft are exactly the same as the record industry monopoly: at one point they were useful enough to people that they made a lot of money and got themselves into a position of exclusionary control. The major record label market share is almost as high as Microsoft's. They both use that power to deploy a series of dirty tricks that destroy competition-- in music that means payola on radio and in magazines that silences independent musicians. Ian MacKaye compares record companies to bottled water companies: it's convenient to have a company take water from a river and put it in bottles for you to use, and it's convenient to put music on a CD so you can listen to it. But gradually the record companies have started working against the public interest. As Ian says,

"Well, the way to increase profits is to try to discourage people from going to the river, and having to buy the bottled water. And they'll start with that but eventually what they're going to get into is they're going to start blocking the river or they're going to poison the river... So in my mind with the sales of records, the industry has done their best to claim ownership of music but they don't-- they only own the things that they sell",

which is to say the CDs, the music wrappers. But Ian MacKaye ultimately believes that music is free. He wants to make it, he wants people to hear it, and he's done everything he can to make a living while also making his records and concerts as cheap as possible. And really, almost anyone who cares about music wants it to be free for the same reason people who care about books like libraries. Now we're at a point where we can create the greatest, freest music library that's ever been conceived and instead we have a monopoly that's pushing a commercial model with the same retail-level markups, the same ridiculously unfair contracts, and worst of all, the same disincentives to freely explore music. It's so easy in this debate for people to forget about the immense social good that free music creates. Free music. Think about what that means for a kid growing up who has no money but loves music and wants to hear everything he can. That's a public good that should not be easily dismissed. And yes, this would be a difficult situation if we didn't have a system for getting musicians paid, but collective licensing is that system. Licensing already works for radio play, cover songs, and music streaming and it'll work for distribution too. Once it happens, no one will ever wish that we were back in a pay-for-download model and no one who grows up with it will quite understand what it was like when pocket money restrained kids' interest in music.

Have any radio stations read your public service announcements on the air?

Yes, we've heard from lots of people who are putting the PSAs on their air at their college or on other independent stations. We've just recorded a new CD of about eight PSAs that we're going to be sending to 450 college radio stations this fall. They talk about our basic themes: filesharing, payola, and the future of the music industry. It's a call to arms to the people who care the most about independent music. We're saying: now is the first real chance we've ever had to really reform the music industry-- so stop supporting the major label system, keep supporting independents, and let's build something better. That message belongs on the radio.

Fat chance it will ever appear on Clear Channel, but that's perhaps another discussion. Thanks again, Nicholas, for your time and dedication to free culture, as well as for the t-shirt. Please keep us informed on what happens with Blog Torrent.

Nicholas Reville was interviewed by Roger E. Rustad, Jr. (scubacuda [at sign] iname [dot] com), senior editor of the Berkman Center's GrepLaw.

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  • Linux
  • Downhill Battle
  • an unathorized distribution of Service Pack 2
  • The Inquirer
  • Microsoft was planning to limit initial access to Service Pack 2
  • sp2torrent.com
  • Grey Tuesday
  • Banned Music
  • bannedmusic.org
  • here's our write-up about it
  • Downhill Battle Labs
  • Torrentocracy
  • since last August
  • some cool projects
  • lots of people linking
  • press coverage
  • Barbie in a Blender
  • What a Crappy Present
  • Anti-RIAA Stickering
  • Jessica Litman
  • Larry Lessig
  • Creative Commons
  • AllOfMP3.com
  • Dusted Magazine
  • Better Propaganda
  • GarageBand.com
  • PureVolume
  • hXcmp3.com
  • iTunes
  • Wal Mart
  • Napster
  • Dusted
  • Local Ink project
  • Sending a fax
  • Free Culture Chapter
  • at concerts
  • donate to the EFF
  • support for Downhill Battle
  • TorrentBits.org
  • support page
  • FreeCulture.org
  • start a chapter at your school
  • these schools
  • interviewed some cool musicians
  • Thievery Corporation
  • Ian MacKaye
  • your public service announcements
  • t-shirt
  • Blog Torrent
  • Berkman Center
  • In this GrepLaw interview
  • SP2Torrent.com
  • Bittorrent
  • More on Digital Entertainment
  • Also by scubacuda
  • Blog Torrent and Participatory Culture | Login/Create an Account | Top | 1 comments | Search Discussion
    The Fine Print: The following comments are owned by whoever posted them. We are not responsible for them in any way.
    zerophase! (Score:0)
    by Anonymous Coward on Friday September 03, @01:02PM (#1618)
    you might also want to check out http://zerophase.net for some really really good independent music. that site rocks!
    [ Reply to This | Parent ]

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