Thom Yorke takes the stage with BitTorrent to test paid torrents

BitTorrent's paywall system launches in a new Bundle from Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke to see if fans will pay for torrents, and could end up upending the crowd-funding world in the process.

Screenshot by Seth Rosenblatt/CNET

If you think that torrent technology is synonymous with stealing content, BitTorrent wants you to think again.

BitTorrent, Inc., the progenitor of the torrent, teamed up on Friday with superstar musician Thom Yorke to make good on a two-year-old promise to figure out how to get people to pay for torrents. It comes in the form of a paygate built into the latest BitTorrent Bundle, the first time that torrents have been wedded to payments.

'This first paygate, we're doing as a test,' said Matt Mason, BitTorrent's vice president of marketing, 'but we're testing a finished product. We're going to move quickly so that other artists can use paywalls.'

Traditional torrents are a decentralized technology for sharing files of any size with a geographically disparate group. Notorious for fueling pirate sites like The Pirate Bay, they're also used to share music, TV, and movies legally, as well as by companies like Google and Facebook to share large files internally.

BitTorrent Bundles, however, are a new kind of torrent that include a packaging protocol. Bundles allow their creator to section off the files being shared behind a gate that swings open when you complete a form.

TK details on the TK superstar artist and their TK superstar Bundle

When Bundles were first introduced in 2013, the gate was limited to email addresses. After you download and start the torrent, you'd get only some of the torrents' files. To get the rest, you had to submit your email address to the Bundle's creator.

Essentially, you get free content while the Bundle's creator gets your email address for marketing purposes.

But the Bundle was always intended as more than a way to get an email address. It was designed to make money for artists by letting them sell directly to their fans and cut out the middle man.

Mason said that the Bundle origins date back to a speech that BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker gave at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago on making money from entertainment piracy. Klinker wanted to build a system, Mason said, that goes 'with the grain of the Internet, which means it has to be decentralized in nature and put end-users in control.'

He wanted to figure out how to make money off of piracy, or at least how to help creators make money off of piracy. BitTorrent itself won't see much from Bundle paygates, at least in the near future. Mason said that BitTorrent will take only a 10 percent cut after the creators pays any transaction fees. Bundle paygates will accept either PayPal or credit cards in more than 140 currencies.

There's also little fear of data-mining. By default, BitTorrent has no access to customer or usage data from a Bundle. It's up to the Bundle creator to choose to share usage data with BitTorrent. And fans can only download the same Bundle a limited number of times before they find themselves locked out.

The impetus for the Bundle, Mason said, 'comes from a genuine desire to fix [online sales and distribution] for artists on the Internet.'

Bundles have attracted a wide range of entertainers since 2013. More than 10,000 content creators have registered to use the tool, with more than 100 million Bundle downloads from more than 450 published Bundles. Bundles have been made by best-selling authors, Grammy-nominated musicians, and Academy Award-winning film makers, including Public Enemy, Madonna, Moby, the Pixies, Drafthouse Films, Tim Ferriss, and Marc Ecko.

The dubstep band Zed's Dead made a BitTorrent Bundle in June that they said helped bring in new fans. Previous albums hadn't charted in the Billboard top 10, but the new one promoted with the Bundle reached number 4 on the Dance/Electronic chart.

'An email address is infinitely more valuable than a Twitter follower. If somebody's putting in their email address, it's good to know that they want more of a behind-the-scenes look,' Zed's Dead representative Brent Underwood told CNET.

In the coming months, Mason said that BitTorrent will introduce threshold gates to Bundles. Once a fan pays to unlock the premium content behind the first gate, a second gate will open once a threshold sum determined by the Bundle creator -- for example, $1 million -- has been raised.

'We're doing this because we see a way to do something good,' Mason said. 'If there wasn't a way to do something good, we wouldn't bother with it.'


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