By Ruth Vitale

It’s a simple question, really.

How does BitTorrent, Inc. feel about the fact that the peer-to-peer protocol it created is used by millions of people to avoid paying for creative content? After all, its technology has enabled a huge black market for the “sharing” of creative works without the creators’ permission – facilitating piracy on a massive scale while contributing nothing toward the compensation of individual creators or the overall creative economy.

I know. I’ve heard them say that the protocol was developed simply to make the sharing of large files possible. They never intended it to be misused. Cross their hearts and hope to die.

But if that’s the case, why is BitTorrent so hesitant to clearly and definitively condemn the misuse of its protocol for piracy? Why is that so difficult?

Especially since now, according to The New York Times, BitTorrent is trying to convince individual artists that, by partnering with the company, it’s possible to build an audience of paying customers.

On July 14, The Times wrote:

This might be the latest twist on crowdfunding — or the web equivalent of seeking a ransom.

BitTorrent, a purveyor of file-sharing technology that is widely used to gain free access to music and films, has come up with a bold proposition for its tens of millions of daily users: Spend $9.95 to help finance a planned new science fiction series and gain viewing rights to its eight episodes. Or fail to pay up, and the shows will never be made.

The Times asked me what I thought, and they ran a quote. Let me share a little bit more of what I said.

We all want to see new business models that reach audiences who are willing to reward creativity by paying a fair price. It’s something I discuss with others in the creative community every day.

But indie filmmakers and musicians should be wary of BitTorrent’s mixed message. If BitTorrent really wants to be a friend to creativity, the company can’t have it both ways.

In 1999, the creator of the BitTorrent protocol, Bram Cohen, wrote in his “Technology Activist’s Agenda”:

I further my goals with technology. I build systems to disseminate information, commit digital piracy, synthesize drugs, maintain untrusted contacts, purchase anonymously, and secure machines and homes.

Did he mean what he wrote? Or was it a parody, as he has subsequently claimed after the Supreme Court ruled that so-called file-sharing companies could be held liable for the actions of their users if they encouraged copyright violations? Either way, Cohen’s comments should give creators pause.

If BitTorrent is sincere about supporting creatives, the company needs to condemn the widespread use of their protocol to illegally pirate movies, television shows, music, and books.

Here’s another cause for concern: We have seen this BitTorrent movie before. And let’s just say it was a flop. As The Times reported: 

BitTorrent has failed in the past to make entertainment buyers of those who use its wares to share content. In 2008, the company shut down a short-lived operation, called BitTorrent Entertainment Network, that had joined Hollywood companies in offering a menu of movie and television downloads for a price.

Copyright opponents love to drone on about so-called “legacy entertainment companies that cling to outdated business models.” It’s an easy and lazy talking point that has made its way into the conventional wisdom.

Admittedly, carefully working through creative rights issues and transitioning large businesses to take advantage of new technologies is difficult. However, in recent years, the creative industries have undeniably made huge leaps forward in responding to the changing viewing habits of audiences.

As BitTorrent itself has learned, new business models are made even more difficult when you are trying to “compete with free” – as in, “pirated copies facilitated by BitTorrent.”

So will BitTorrent tell us: Of the 170 million-some users BitTorrent claims, how many of them are paying for content delivered by BitTorrent? According to several studies, virtually 100% of all of the files sharedusing the protocol are likely unauthorized.

To date, BitTorrent has failed to create a workable business model from the legions of non-paying customers that use their technology every day.

And unless I’ve missed the story, it has also failed to focus its innovative genius (and there’s no doubt the company has genius) on developing any tools that would prevent – or “disrupt” – the misuse of their original protocol.

If BitTorrent wished to prevent their client applications from being used to facilitate massive piracy, it could do something about it. The company says it’s all about technology, so how about using technology to reduce piracy?

Funny how some technology companies like BitTorrent are always extolling the unlimited power of technology – except when it can be used to help creators by preventing the unauthorized distribution of their creative content.

I believe that BitTorrent’s failure to publicly condemn the misuse of its protocol – and to actually do something about it – is going to hurt the company’s efforts to build legitimate business models…just like it hurts everyone else’s.

Because as you learn in Business 101: if there’s one thing that every successful business model needs, legacy or otherwise, it’s paying customers.