My Book is Out Now!

Book cover: Digital Culture IndustryDigital Culture Industry:
A History of Digital Distribution

I’m very happy to announce that my book is finally out with Palgrave Macmillan.

If you’re interested in the history of peer-to-peer piracy and how it shaped digital media today this is the book for you. Covering MP3.com, Napster, GNUtella, Kazaa, Streamcast, Grokster, BitTorrent and The Pirate Bay this comprehensive history is a great read for anyone interested in the field of digital media.

….if I do say so myself.

For a more comprehensive overview of the book head over to the book page where you can see reviews and chapter summaries.

There was a lot of research that went into the book, and a lot of resources to boot. If you’d like to see some of the things I made related to the book head over to this blog post and also take a look at the resources.

Available now from…

PalgraveMacmillanwaterstonesref=sr_1_14

Motivation for Innovation

Dan Pink’s TED talk on innovation led to a slight little sparking in my brain in regards to innovation. Throughout my work I’ve been toying with the idea that across the last decade, much of the innovation that we have seen in terms of digital distribution of media has come from outside of the media industries. Napster, Gnutella, BitTorrent, etc. all appear to have roots outside of the media industry sphere and were produced without financial incentive. They were then more or less subsumed into the industry either willingly or unwillingly and the innovations these outsiders had produced were utilised.

What Dan Pink’s talk at TED may illuminate is why these innovations were created by people with no financial incentive. Pink’s talk, to paraphrase the conclusions, outlined that financial incentives like bonuses or higher pay will improve the output of someone who has a clear task to complete. However these financial incentives will actually diminish someone’s capabilities when asked to produce without clear rules or aims. It’s definitely worth a watch.

If Mandelson is Telling the Truth…

The Digital Britain team recently posted up some rebuttals to the accusations directed at the government, one of them being that Lord Mandelson did a u-turn on policy after having a hearty meal with David Geffen. According to team DB…

No discussion took place with David Geffen about Digital Britain. Peter Mandelson has said he doesn’t even think the issue is on Geffen’s radar.

Suppose then that this is indeed true. If we do accept that the dinner with Geffen and the policy change announcement are completely coincidental, does that dissipate the issue? According to The Independent

Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is said to be persuaded by the argument for tough laws to curb illegal file-sharing after an intensive lobbying campaign by influential people in the music and film industry.

Stating that their decision to enact some very controversial policies is based on intensive lobbying from the media industry to me is not an absolution but equally damning. Considering that the Digital Britain report was produced based on taking the opinions of many different groups and developing a middle ground. From these recent developments I can only assume that the media industry were not content with a balanced solution and instead continue to demand preferential treatment. At least the British citizenry now know where they stand.

Thank the Media for Information Freedom

Perhaps one of the most prominent patterns I’ve seen in my research is increasing decentralisation in information transfer primarily driven by media. Services such as MP3.com and Napster who wanted to work alongside the music industry were incredibly centralised. MP3.com worked off the classic server/client system of information distribution, whilst Napster was centralised by its index servers that co-ordinated the finding and transfer of information. These made the services vulnerable to take-downs, but they never built those systems with the aim of defending themselves, they wanted to work with the industry.

When the industry reacted as they did (read as ‘rather badly’) it spurred on certain software developers to work towards making their networks as decentralised as they could and the politics changed. Justin Frankel, founder of Nullsoft the company responsible for Winamp and the original Gnutella protocol wasn’t the corporate type and his system was designed not to work with the industry. Despite the sale of Nullsoft to AOL his perception of the buyout quickly changed when he realised how much his personal perspectives jarred with those of AOL. When Frankel saw what Napster was doing his first thoughts were how it could be done without being sued. His fairly autonomous Nullsoft staff worked away at Gnutella and released it for free on the net. Gnutella worked as a completely decentralised network, no matter how many computers were taken offline, the network persisted. It was no longer a case of ‘can we work with the industry’ but ‘can we get past the industry’. Proof of success lies in the fact that the Gnutella protocol still persists, its most popular client software being Limewire.

Other systems such as Kazaa, Grokster and WinMX all worked on similar variations of the Gnutella system. The next shift in data transfer came with BitTorrent. Strangely BitTorrent was never designed with piracy in mind, Bram Cohen (the original protocol coder) once said

“Distributing stuff that is clearly illegal with BitTorrent is a really dumb idea. BitTorrent doesn’t have any anonymity features. There are things about it that make it very incompatible with anonymity”

BitTorrent was designed for fast reliable media distribution, but on a legal footing. That’s why if you go to BitTorrent.com you’ll see endorsements from Fox, Warner Bros and Paramount Studios. BitTorrent became the piracy powerhouse it is today because it was released open source and the privacy aspects were built in later, including the ability to decentralise. Usually BitTorrent requires a tracker to co-ordinate the sharing of information, a big ol’ centralised server just screaming for a takedown notice. This wasn’t a problem to Cohen but the community worked their way around this by introducing DHT and peer exchange which make BitTorrent function more like Gnutella than Napster by making every client a tracker (quite how they do this technically is still beyond me).

This is the level of decentralisation we’re at now. However what we’ve also seen with The Pirate Bay lawsuits and raids is that BitTorrent is vulnerable, because of the technical centralisation, but also interestingly the social centralisation. The suit against the pirate bay was possible because there was a degree of centralisation in the apparent responsibility for it, that being the four plucky chaps that ran it. Similar cases have arisen for other trackers where the administrators have been targeted. The servers frequently get shifted around or backups are hidden in various countries ready to kick in if one set go down but the people are a different matter.

This is one of the reasons I believe the pirate bay admin have decided to sell it off. I don’t think they truly believe anyone will turn it into a pay service and I don’t think they care either. The pirate bay became too centralised as an icon. The hope is that the next stage of P2P will be decentralised to the point where no index site is needed to find content, no tracker to co-ordinate the transfers and no administrators to run anything. Simply client software all running as index, tracker and admin all at once. We can already see this in certain clients such as Vuze who are attempting a similar shift in being both content platform and torrent client. Torrent files, the small files that direct a software client to connect to a certain tracker and look for certain content will be considered less as a requirement for content sharing, and more as a browser based shareable link to a network that is always on.

What is interesting about this drive towards decentralisation is the necessary role that the media industries have played in it. Both as the reason to create the systems themselves by providing the profit motive (Napster and BitTorrent) and as the impetus to make them faster, stronger and more open by consistently attempting to shut them down. Perhaps one day we will salute the media industry as the greatest driver for information freedom.

The Long Tail of P2P: Some Issues

After having a read through the PRS report that has been causing a bit of a stir, I find myself feeling mildly uneasy with the implications. Although the authors – and I’m thankful for it – end with a declaration that blindly rallying against P2P is probably not the most rational course of action for the music biz, the implied statements about the future role of P2P worries me.

The crux of the article appears to be around the refuting of the theory of ‘long-tail’ economics. Standard economics works on a system where you will bring out a small range of products and sell many of them. Long-tail economics is an idea from Wired’s Chris Anderson and presents the notion that with Digital Distribution and the increasing ability to provide huge archives of music for little cost, it may be that we are moving to an economics where there are no ‘hits’ but that distributors would sell a small amount of many products.

The report’s authors Page & Garland claim that based on their surveys of both legal and illegal digital music markets, the fact of the matter is that there is still a propensity for ‘hits’. They claim that in the legal market 90% of the revenue is generated by as little as 5% of the product. In the illegal market this rises slightly with 80% of the transfers being comprised of only 5% of the available material. In both markets we have ‘hits’ and then the rest. Due to the apparent similarity between the two markets, the authors curiously suggest that P2P networks could be successfully used for mainstream marketing, however independent artists are unlikely to succeed in such an environment.

Buried in the back of the report in the Appendix is this statement

Put more bluntly, the 10 million tracks that failed to find a buyer on the legal digital shelf have found (at least) a swapper in this illegal market. Many conclusions could be drawn from these observations, but here’s our preferred choice: If the sellers sell it,it might never be bought;but if the swappers offer it,at least one person will likely take it. It goes without saying however, that for the creator and artists watching their niche offerings being swapped a single time on P2P, this form of ‘freemium’ activity may not be paying for lunch.

Agreed, if you only ever get exposure to one person it’s unlikely that you’ll hit it big. However what seems to be the case from the earlier stats is that artists have a better chance of being distributed via P2P than they do via legal markets. 98% of all recording artists in the music industry are not attached to a major label, leaving 2% with the entire billion dollar music industry behind them. Is it really a surprise that they have a greater degree of exposure? What this study seems to ignore is the skew that such marketing can have on popularity and the value of the middle ground.

The top most shared and most bought music will always be comparable due to the amount of exposure a certain elite contingent of artists receive. There will also be a bottom group with no shares and no sales. However the middle ground is what matters for independent artists. If they can increase their exposure by a few thousand – a paltry sum for the big hitters – that may be the difference between obscurity and exposure.

The report also appears to be more favourable of free legal streaming services such as Spotify which offer large catalogues of music. Spotify in particular works a model of interspersing adverts between songs allowing them to collect revenue to pay the broadcast licence. Currently the ads are fairly sparse and unintrusive, making the experience rather enjoyable. However Zeropaid identifies a possible motive behind this report. With favourable statements regarding both the possibility of utilising the P2P environment for mainstream marketing and online streaming services it seems suspect that the PRS recently announced plans for two new online music licences, one for music download and subscription services, and one for streaming. The exact fees for streaming services are currently ‘under consideration’.

What this appears to be to me is further attempts to formalise and colonise the services that have arisen and solidified despite the industry’s efforts. The article on the BBC is a cleverly placed piece of self promotion that both normalises the idea of P2P (it no longer destroys the industry, it makes the big artists more popular) and also re-asserts the validity of the industry itself (indie artists should give up the P2P idea and accept that they need legitimate business).