An Open Letter to Bittorrent and File Sharing Sites

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The Birthday Massacre, who is managed by my former college prof Terry MacManus. During our telephone conversation discussing the effect of filesharing on content creators I downloaded their entire 6-album catalog via bittorrent. For free.

Since our successful wrangling with another ICANN registrar over the rights  of domain name holders and the responsibilities of registrars when transferring their names, we have unsurprisingly become a “goto” registrar for bittorrent and filesharing sites.

I wanted to clarify the easyDNS stance on this because I think the entire filesharing space has a limited time window to position for the future and nothing less than their ongoing viability is at stake.

Firstly, our reason for pushing back against the City of London IPCU has less to do with filesharing or bittorrent itself but rather was more about “due process” in matters of cyberlaw and domain takedowns.

Put simply, absent exigent circumstances (easily understood and identifiable as active network abuse and internet stability issues), nobody should be able to “disappear” somebody else’s website simply by sending an email.

While I could write an entire article on why not, I will briefly list them here, without belaboring the point too much :

  1. There needs to be a modicum of checks vs balances in the form of due diligence and due process before a simple email can force a domain off the internet. (Otherwise it’s not a takedown, it’s a DoS)
  2. Lacking that, all too often the second order ramifications of takedowns are poorly understood and destructive (i.e. taking down domains that turn out to be holding up other parts of the internet). See mooo.com, jotform.com, no-ip, and from the humour files, takedown requests we’ve received in the past here from self-described “internet compliance agents” requesting we takedown easydns.com
  3. Requests coming from law enforcement agencies, or government departments, absent due process, become edicts. Ostensibly we do not tolerate authoritarian rule in the real world (even though we do), it shouldn’t happen on the internet either. It is the responsibility of citizens to hold our overlords, and their agents, accountable. They presumably are there to serve us.
  4. Disruption is not a crime, when a new model emerges that disrupts the old way of doing business, it should be embraced not persecuted. This is how we ended up with cars, air travel, telephones and paper clips.

Having outlined our premises for why we do the things the way we do here, it’s also important that we address the other side of this issue:

easyDNS does not endorse copyright violation or theft of intellectual property (Section #17 of our Plain English Terms of Service specifically addresses copyright removal requests for filesharing and bittorrent sites).

Eventually, the legal process is going to catch up with the technology. There will no longer be an absence of due process, it will begin to move in internet time. Any file sharing and bittorrent operations that are not already positioned and onside when that happens would be wrong to consider easyDNS some kind of safe refuge against legal takedowns.

My unsolicited advice to the entire space: if you aren’t already working on this, you should be thinking of ways to legitimize your business models.

Recently I had a long conversation with Terry MacManus, my former college professor at Fanshawe College’s Music Industry Arts program where I attended 1985-87 before embarking on my career as a failed musician. Nowadays Terry manages The Birthday Massacre, a Canadian indie band with 6 studio albums out.

We spoke specifically of the effect of file sharing on content creators. I floated the idea that bittorrent and filesharing sites could try negotiating blanket licensing deals with rights agencies. Terry was skeptical, but he went on to share this great analogy with me:

Imagine I’m a store manager. The Birthday Massacre is my shop. I want to serve the customers who come into my shop, and my job is to get more people coming into the store. Those major labels, the guys screaming about bittorrent, trying to shut it down, they are like angry old men, standing out on the sidewalk in front of their stores, shaking their fist and yelling at the cars driving by on the highway. It’s useless. I’ll just stay in my store, look after my customers and try to get more people to come in and have a look around.

What bittorrent sites can do is help get more people into my shop and the shops of all the other bands and artists out there.

In other words, if the bittorrent and filesharing players started actively figuring out how they can drive more value to the content creators, it would be a game changer, and possibly an eventual lifesaver, for the torrent sites.

The obvious areas to investigate would be:

  1. Pursue blanket licensing agreements with mechanical rights agencies where possible
  2. Industry initiatives in micropayments, bitcoin and other crypto-currencies provide opportunities to break new ground (ideas like frostwire’s bitcoin tipjar and onename.io point in possible directions)
  3. Help get that “floor traffic” into the shops of artists and content creators. Create a standard include file format bundled within torrents which refer users back to the home pages and storefronts of the content creators. Terry balked at the idea of paying affiliate commissions for referred sales, but it’s a negotiating point. (Would an artist mind if a user downloaded their song for free but ended up coming to their website and buying a t-shirt? Or at least joining their mailing list?)

There are ample possibilities, the technology is here. The file sharing players just have to garner the will to align with the interests of the content creators and rights holders. The incumbent representatives of the big labels, the Performing Rights Organizations and and Mechanical Rights Organizations will be hesitant to come to the table, but once some serious strides are made that may change.

Eventually legal “due process” will catch-up with the internet and it will do so with a vengeance. The players in the filesharing and bittorrent space need to be aware of that, and decide what that means. Either they realize the glory days of “easy money” will end, and they resign to move on to something else, or the ones with a long term view make it their business to reinvent themselves well ahead of time so that they are running enduring, sustainable businesses and thus survive the coming shakeout (In other words, the disruptors will not be immune from disruption).

It does however seem a very exciting opportunity for any bittorrent / filesharing sites who are forward thinking enough to go for it.

When you see the transformations occurring (i.e the evolution of Netflix over its lifespan, from a mail-order service to a digital delivery platform and now award winning content creator) you realize that the shape of new media creation, delivery and commerce is completely up for grabs right now.

I look at the landscape and I think tomorrow’s Sub-Pops and KillRockStars have names today like Bandcamp and Soundcloud. Then I ask what names the Harry Fox Agencies and CMRRAs will have tomorrow and I can’t help but anticipate that the response will evolve out of  the filesharing, p2p and crypto-currency spaces.

But if any of the players in the bittorrent and filesharing space want to participate in that then they’ll have to begin the process of reinventing themselves and legitimizing their models now.

(P.S This is not to say I consider bittorrent and peer-to-peer filesharing as “illegitimate” – but we all know there is a palpable friction and conflict between current rights holders, especially the content creators and the filesharing space.)

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