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CULTURE HACKER
Lance Weiler explains why filmmakers are turning to torrent sites to build a community.

BY LANCE WEILER

THE LEAGUE OF NOBLE PEERS’ STEAL THIS FILM STEAL THIS FILM.

I have to admit I’m a bit excited. As I stand waiting in an empty parking lot I feel as if I’m in a scene from All the President’s Men. Although I haven’t placed a red flag on a balcony, I have been granted entry to a world — one where music, films, games and books are free.

When Danny pulls up he seems like your average 20-year-old. Disheveled, self-aware and a tad bit paranoid. He’s excited to be interviewed but makes sure to remind me not to say anything to his parents in the event they come home.

Danny’s house sits at the end of a suburban cul-de-sac. His room is poorly lit. There is clutter. Piles of dirty laundry cover his floor, much of which appear to be t-shirts with logos. As he fires up his PC, there is an awkward silence as the system boots. His walls are adorned with posters of bands, scantily clothed women and beer. It strikes me that the analog things in Danny’s room were most likely purchased.

As I turn back he’s smiling and pointing to his computer screen. At first it appears to just be a product listing for Pirates of the Caribbean on Amazon. But as my eyes meet Danny’s tapping finger I see the words “download 4 free.” It looks like a mistake but Danny tells me with a sense of pride that I’m experiencing “Pirates of the Amazon,” which is an add-on for Firefox. Add-ons are simple scripts that enable the Firefox Web browser to extend its functionality. “Pirates of the Amazon” along with “IMDB Pirated,” which turns IMDB into a full-fledged torrent search engine of sorts, are two of the newer add-ons that are simplifying the discovery of torrents.

While piracy is not a new phenomenon, what frightens many in the entertainment industry is how widespread it has become. According to a recent report by bandwidth-management firm Sandvine, 44 percent of all bandwidth consumed in North America is peer-to-peer traffic. And last fall the Pirate Bay, one of the largest torrent tracking sites, passed the 25 million peers mark while single-handedly accounting for over 50 percent of all public torrents.

As the music industry abandons its fruitless war on piracy, many independent record labels and artists are turning to BitTorrent to ease distribution costs and, more importantly, to take the work to where the audience is — in other words to mirror the audience’s behavior. As this goes to press Nine Inch Nails, champions of the “freemium” model, have established their own torrent tracker and are releasing high-quality audio files of their new tour sampler NIN/JA for free while making other physical goods and collectibles available for pay in limited quantities.

The film industry is running out of physical formats and soon all media will be digital. A series of 1s and 0s that by its very nature is intended to be copied. Piracy is inevitable. DRM (digital rights management) has only frustrated consumers, often making it difficult for them to enjoy the media they have purchased on the device of their choosing and in some cases leaving piracy as the only viable option. BitTorrent is the method of choice when it comes to file sharing. It scales effectively and when files are seeded properly can provide decent download speeds. But can the networks that fuel piracy also provide legitimate business models to filmmakers? Some British filmmakers seem to think so.

When the time came for Jamie King and the Noble League of Peers to release their film entitled Steal This Film, a documentary about copyright and intellectual property, they took it directly to where their audience lives. Through a promotional deal with a number of the top torrent tracker sites, King and company were able to secure various placements such as logo swaps and banners encouraging people to download the film for free. At the conclusion to the film there was a simple call to action that encouraged viewers to make a donation to help support the filmmakers’ next project. To date Steal This Film has received more than $30,000 in donations and in the process has been downloaded over six million times.

King believes that in the future it could be possible to have .5 percent of viewers donating if the filmmaker adds the right incentives. In fact, he believes this so strongly he’s decided to create a legitimate business model around it. This spring King is launching a new service entitled VODO (volunteer donation) that provides an easy way to assign and track donations made to a film’s torrent file. The other side of the model is DISCO (distribution coalition), which will place participating films in front of upwards of 50 million people monthly. Current partners in DISCO are an impressive list of the largest torrent trackers in the world: the Pirate Bay, Mininova, isoHunt and others.

When asked how his model will fare due to the fact that numerous tracker sites are under legal attack (the Pirate Bay was tried in Sweden and is awaiting a verdict in their case and Mininova goes to trial in May), King is quick to point out that as soon as one torrent site disappears another rises from its ashes. But for King it is not about any one outlet or file sharing protocol — his real goal is to create a legitimate model that is piracy-agnostic while providing opportunities for those seeking to monetize their films. At its core the model is really quite simple in the sense that it is centered on aggregating audiences and content. There are many sites and blogs that have large audiences, and under King’s model all of them could use elements of VODO and/or join DISCO.

Of course donations are only one revenue model for a filmmaker, and some may argue against its efficacy. But King believes that audiences want to have a connection with those who make the work and are willing to support the things they are passionate about. VODO and DISCO are the first step in what King hopes will become a sustaining model for those who create content.

As Danny drops me off back at my car, I ask if he is going to buy a copy of the magazine when it comes out even though at some point it could be free online. His answer: “Hell yeah!”



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