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