“Peer to Peer, Peer to Peer, Peer to Peer,” chants the crowd of revolutionaries as they throw rocks and empty bottles at the ivory towers… that would be a pretty cool intro to a news article. Sorry to disappoint you, but it’s fiction. While many people I’ve spoken to have warned me that you can’t have revolution without people getting hurt, and “burning down town hall,” I believe the peer-to-peer revolution is already underway, and, so far, no buildings have been burnt down.
This week we are going to talk about the role peer-to-peer systems have had on entertainment. That’s right, our fifth installment on the peer-to-peer revolution covers the entertainment industry. As a quick refresher, we’ve covered housing (think Airbnb), transportation (think Uber), energy (think solar power), finance (think Kickstarter), and we still have media, education, and mental illness left.
When most people think of peer-to-peer entertainment (if at all), they are usually reminded of peer-to-peer file sharing services, such as Napster… or torrents. I don’t want to focus too much on file sharing, but I’ll give you a quick review because it’s a fascinating history and some of the technologies used are relevant to what I want to focus on.
In the late 1990’s, the algorithm for encoding audio as an “MP3” was just created and internet connections were beginning to speed up. I believe I had a 14.4k dial-up modem at the time. Not very impressive given that my dad worked for the telephone company! The beauty of an “MP3” was that it would take a full song and compress it down to a few megabytes in file size while still maintaining CD-quality sound. This meant that using your typical internet connection you could download a full song in about an hour. It was also very easy to take a CD and turn the tracks into MP3s, which could be copied and transmitted over the internet without any cost.
This created a perfect storm for music piracy, which is copying, sharing, or distributing copyrighted material without the creators consent. But it was just too damn easy!! Before this people were recording songs on tape off the radio. Now they were clicking buttons on their computer and getting full-version CD quality songs for free. Interestingly enough, sharing files over the internet was happening before CD burners became common, so it was easier for you to steal over the web than to make a physical duplicate of a CD a friend may have. CD burning technology quickly followed, but was still costly. A CD burner might cost you $300-400… while all the music you could imagine was available for free online – if you knew where to look.
Yes, the tricky part was finding the songs. You could always take your songs and send them to a friend, but the technology to transmit a file from one person directly to another wasn’t really there yet, at least not conveniently. And that would require one of you to actually buy the CD. I’ll admit, the only CD I ever bought was in 2nd grade when I bought a Kris Kross CD (yes, they’ll make you Jump Jump). In order to find all this “Free music,” you had to download from a server and the person who owned the server was taking a risk because sharing files was illegal. It’s still illegal. The websites with free MP3 downloads were generally scandalous: free music, free compute software, free pornography, with lots of ads and viruses. All the sketchy goods came on the same sites, usually called “warez” sites. If you knew what to search for, finding free stuff was easy. You could also hang out in IRC chat rooms and get access to FTP servers… but that’s a dark place of the internet that we don’t need to revisit. Basically – it was really easy. I remember downloading illegal versions of software that cost thousands of dollars that was so powerful that my computer couldn’t even run it. I just thought it was cool to have it. What 12 year old kid doesn’t want to see exactly what comes in a $20,000 piece of software?
And so it began – music was being ripped off CDs, put into digital format, and put onto servers for the masses to download. Internet connections were still pretty slow and would frequently disconnect, which meant starting your download over. You may also find the file you downloaded was crappy quality. But it worked.
The infamous program called Napster was launched in 1999 right at the end of the peak of the so-called “dot com boom.” This was the first mainstream “peer-to-peer” filesharing platform which spread like wild. The software connected large numbers of people, and instead of downloading from a server, you would be downloading directly from your peers. Little pieces of the files would transfer at a time from lots of different people and then it would assemble on your computer as a whole song. Napster became popular quickly on college campuses where tech-saavy people had high bandwidth internet connections and even at some tech companies. You could meet someone and, overnight, have a copy of every song they “owned.”
Given all the massive distribution of content for free, the playing field was leveled for smaller musicians to get their work out there to the masses. In theory, your band could get mass exposure without the need for a big label for distribution – your music could spread virally.
As far as I know, that didn’t happen. There may be some underground work that I’m not aware of (like hip hop) that may have gotten some exposure from this peer-to-peer explosion. But I’m not sure that the peer-to-peer music-sharing system made any artists famous. There were some big names that got pissed off that their copyrights were being infringed. Metallica comes to mind as a loud voice in this situation, and by the summer of 2001, Napster was shut down. Other services followed in different forms (Bearshare and Limewire for example) but many of them brought viruses and poor content and had little mainstream success. The piracy scene went back to being very much underground as it had once been.
A few years later something new happened. In the late 90’s there was a perfect storm of 14kbps dial up modems and MP3 encoding… mid 2000’s brought high bandwidth internet connections and streaming video. At the same time, the cost of video and audio equipment started dropping. Hell, people started having cameras in their phones! And then… YouTube was born.
Now that we’re 1,000 words in, I want to focus on the real meat of my peer-to-peer revolution in the entertainment industry: YouTube.
What makes YouTube amazing? Anyone can create content. It can be distributed fast and cheap (free). People can vet good content by giving it a thumbs up. They can share and recommend content with their peers at the click of a button. People can subscribe to creators they enjoy and get notified when they create new content. And you can comment on the videos – and engage directly with the creator. As one musician described it – “its far more real-time than I expected, it’s almost like performing a concert, I upload a video, and immediately hear feedback from our fans almost as if they are in the room with us.”
I want to emphasize that the actual file-sharing process isn’t peer-to-peer: you’re not downloading the content from other people. YouTube has a server with all the content. You upload your content to YouTube and then viewers stream it off YouTube’s servers. What is peer-to-peer is the creation, promotion, and distribution. And I believe that’s where all the power lies. Many artists have achieved mainstream stardom from YouTube: Justin Bieber started out on YouTube, and, far more talented and watchable, comedian Bo Burnham did too. You probably don’t know Bo. He started off creating YouTube videos in his bedroom as a teenagers. Mostly him singing and rapping funny songs he wrote while playing keyboard. The kid is brilliant, became popular, and ended up the youngest person to ever have a Comedy Central special. Thanks YouTube. Justin Bieber had another path, I don’t really know it, but it involved Usher, and I don’t really know anything about him either…
So let’s focus on Bo. Here is an artist who created content on his own: he wrote the music, he wrote the lyrics, he performed both, he filmed it all, and he uploaded it to the internet. He is the creator. YouTube hosted his content on their server. And then the world found it, viewed it, liked it, shared it… so much that he now has a very successful comedy career – he’s got a new comedy special (free on YouTube), a book, he tours, the kid is awesome. I recommend him to any young people I meet as a role model for creative minds.
And for every person like Bo who has gone from YouTube to the mainstream, there are hundreds if not thousands of people who have become famous while staying within the structure of YouTube. And many don’t need to go on tour or sell books to make money, they put ads on their YouTube videos and YouTuve gives them a cut.
As in my past articles, there’s a couple things I want to check here for patterns. One – who is making the money for not doing any “real” work. And two – what are the legal ramifications.
YouTube, owned by Google, is absolutely printing money from this service. They own the servers and have some algorithms in place to help suggest videos that you may like based on your viewing habits, and they make money by advertising on the videos. From what I’ve read, the YouTube content makers don’t get a huge piece of the advertising revenue – it’s very hard to make a living off it, but it is possible.
As far as the law goes, it doesn’t look like there is anything illegal about creating content and posting your videos online for people to watch. Some people post illicit content like pornography and YouTube does a decent job of monitoring that. They also do a good job of monitoring copyrighted material to ensure people aren’t uploading copies of their favorite movies, though I do frequently see people posting whole songs with the video showing the lyrics. For some reason that isn’t triggering copyright issues.
The main legal issue that is arising has to do with copyright infringement of a different form than we talked about earlier when I discussed illegal filesharing. While the YouTube craze was sweeping the world, something happened with music: lots of people stopped stealing it. Apple created iTunes which made it very easy to buy music. And their products wouldn’t allow pirated music to be played. Somehow Apple actually convinced people to buy products like that… wow. Secondly – sites like Pandora and Spotify started popping up that let you stream your music for free (with ads). All of these factors combined to make stealing music a thing of the past.
Instead, people have started stealing movies and television shows. Just like in the 90’s with music, the access to high-bandwidth internet and quality video compression has made video more accessible. And I’m not sure what will happen with that. Some sites like Hulu and Netflix are successfully charging people for streaming video service. YouTube/Google also has a successful streaming service too. At some point the scales will probably balance and the content will be so convenient and cheap that it’s not worth stealing anymore.
There is one new issue regarding copyright infringement that has come up thanks to YouTube. It’s become so easy to produce content that it’s also very easy to pull in pieces of other people’s content and call it your own. I’ll give you a simple example. At my peer-to-peer education site, Open Source High, students post video lessons that they have created. The essence of their videos are always original, but they often bring in short pieces of other people’s content without their videos. Maybe a student makes a three minute video about gravity, and in the middle includes a 5 second snippet from a video he found elsewhere of someone firing a canon or falling down a flight of stairs (thanks, Gravity). In this case, they are not really trying to take someone’s content and share it without permission (like music and movies), instead they are taking someone else’s content and pretending like it belongs to them.
This is the gray area of copyright infringement, which involves “fair use.” Well all know taking an entire song or movie and sharing it is illegal, but there are different laws which dictate what you can and cannot borrow from other people’s work and including it in your own work. These laws dictate when it is acceptable to use other people’s content, hence the “fair use” claim. But the laws are very gray.
Student who create video lessons for Open Source High can claim that they are using them for “educational purposes” which would fall under fair use. But what if they win a cash prize in one of our video contests? Do they still fall under fair use if they are earning money? In addition to using content for educational purposes, it is also fair to use content for news reporting, non-profit applications, and parody (among others). Other things such as the length of the content being used (did you take 3 seconds from a 5 minute song or 3 minutes from a 5 minute song) and whether your product will now compete with the old content in the marketplace are also taken into consideration.
Parody is a very fascinating fair use claim one which allows, for example, the creators of South Park to use what ever characters and ideas they want on their show. As long as they are doing so asa parody, it is fair game. I ran into these issues when I created my physics sketch comedy show, What the FisX (think Saturday Night Live plus physics), where I was making physics-themed parodies of popular movies and shows like The Matrix, Tosh.0, Ron Burgundy, Shark Tank, and Jack Ass. Not only was I using parody, but I was also using the content for educational purposes. I felt safe, but realistically, I could be breaking the law (oops).
To address some of these new copyright issues, the Creative Commons was made. The Commons is a database that allows content creators to make it very clear how they want their content to be used. Maybe you’ll allow it to be used as long as you’re given credits at the end of the video. Maybe you want a royalty. Maybe you want everyone to use it without any regard for you. Now you can set the terms of the agreement up front and not have to deal with each and every person who wants to use your contact.
As you see, copyright infringement has changed it’s face away from simple “taking content and redistributing it for free” to “taking content and claiming its my own creation.” Very different things.
Instead of a top-down world, where you must get a big name label to produce your content and then distribute it through national systems, we are now going from the ground up: creating our own content and distributing it through peer-to-peer networks.
We hear a lot about how teenagers spend more time on YouTube than television. It’s obvious, there are a billion channels to watch! And its on-demand, watch what you want to watch whenever you want to watch it. But it’s not just our youngest generation that’s using this new technology. I’m 29 and I haven’t had cable since 2007. OK, I’m still young, how about my dad? He now spends as much time on YouTube as he does with regular television. And why? Because he can watch countless Franki Valli concerts on YouTube for free, and Franki never appears on television. No offense to Franki, he’s had a hell of a career (and still puts on a good live show!), but there simply isn’t room for him to be on television for an hour every night – but on YouTube, there is. Freedom of choice and convenience prevails.