Today’s Five Questions With… goes international with the Britain-based Jamie King, a BitTorrent Inc. media evangelist and the founder of VODO. By partnering with creators like The Yes Men, King and VODO have had real success using BitTorrent as a legal distribution platform. Giving their content away for free has helped creators receive financial support from their audiences, potentially leading to a brand new revenue model for online content. Below, King discusses the state of online privacy, the threat posed to peer-to-peer sharing by the entertainment lobby and how Vodo plans to turn fan donations into a sustainable support system for creators.
1. What’s the one big issue/law/attitude/restriction that you think is holding back the industry?
At VODO and BitTorrent, we think the free-to-share model, powered by peer-to-peer distribution, is developing into a great way for creators to have their works seen, heard and read by millions of people. So one thing I think (of as) very damaging is the way entertainment lobbies are moving, through instruments like Three-Strikes and ACTA, to prop up copy-restriction for the apparent good of their own businesses — but to the detriment of almost everyone else.
Someone smart, probably Clay Shirky or Yochai Benkler, said that incumbent industries naturally try to maintain the problems they profit from. This becomes highly aggravating when they criminalize millions of people and dismantle our privacy in order to do it. These measures are going to impede artistic and cultural development at a time when independent artists really need to find new ways to get themselves out there.
It’s all about trying to forestall the development of an incredibly promising new cultural form: peer-to-peer. But you can’t forestall it. It’s already happened. You can, however, do a lot of social damage by failing to recognize the fact, and convincing dumbos in governments and the EU to do your misguided bidding. Not only the industry will lose out: we will all be losers in this game.
I guess it’s not all bad news. We think that we can create opportunities for creators that rival or outperform those of copy-restricted media, without supporting the privations demanded by Big Entertainment. The more of us out there showing this model can work, the harder it will be to make the justifications they do.
2. What industry buzzword do you never want to hear again?
I might do a double take if you drop “social graph” into a conversation, but no, I don’t usually spend my time worrying about buzzwords.
I suppose at VODO — and this might seem paradoxical for what some see as an ‘edgy’ company — we feel pretty distant from fast-moving fashions in technology. I guess when the first buzzword hits us we’ll know we’ve done something right.
3. If someone gave you $50 million to invest in a company in this space, which one would it be? (Mentioning your own doesn’t count.)
I’d bet someone else’s farm on online privacy. Privacy is rapidly becoming a scarce resource, as recent speeches from Eric Schmidt and frankly terrifying interviews with Mark Zuckerberg show. We might be happy to squander our privacy at the moment. But one day soon, we’ll pay trusted parties to protect us from the pervasive surveillance that’s being hardwired not only into our net use, but into the general fabric of everyday life. Privacy won’t be something only needed by “bad guys” with “something to hide”. It’ll be for all of us — at least, all of us who still value a part of our life that remains ours.
4. What was the last video (that you weren’t personally involved with) that you liked enough to spread to others?
I heard about this from a friend about two weeks ago, and have been enthusiastically recommending it ever since. It’s just so good.
The concept of a rapping newsman (“Robert Foster”) is phenomenal for a start. His flows are geeky, funny and informative all at the same time. His caricature of Julian Assange is just brilliant. I love the way all the characters try to look serious while nodding their heads to the beat. The whole thing is really intelligent and good and it just makes me want MORE. I showed it to my dad, and he agrees with me: this deserves more than 40,000 views on YouTube.
Actually, I’ve even written to the two guys who do this to ask if we can distribute their stuff on VODO, I like it that much. (They didn’t answer. Yet.) Someone should sponsor these guys, now.
5. WILD-CARD: Vodo’s recent distribution successes have found financial victory thanks to viewer donations, but do you feel that crowdsourcing is a sustainable business model for content on a long term basis? And what’s Vodo’s strategy should it reach the limit of “the kindness of strangers”?
Our first year was about building audience. We’ve done that: we’re getting between 500,000-750,000 viewers per release just on our own tracker. These numbers are growing steadily. We can’t take our eye off the ball but we feel confident we can grow this past a million per release by the end of the year. We’ve got some great releases coming up and we encourage new artists to approach us with ideas.
Meanwhile we’ve started to learn about direct support from audiences and the unconventional economics of this business. Giving away a million copies of a thing could be seen in old-school terms as a gigantic loss leader. A certain percentage of people arrive at VODO having seen or downloaded the show, wanting to make a transaction. They want to support the artists, support VODO, get involved. A lot of them stay at our site to watch other media, or interact with each other. That’s the opportunity.
One of our tasks is to give these people what Mike Masnick calls “reasons to buy”. Simply knowing that the artist will benefit is one such reason; others are helping to make future episodes (as with our show Pioneer One), getting your name in credits, mystery gifts… the list goes on. We’re learning which incentives really work, and in doing so gravitating away from the idea of “pure donation.” What we talk about now is incentivized support: every payment gets some kind of return. So I don’t think we’ll ever have to find out if people’s generosity is limitless!
And it’s not all about crowdsourcing. VODO Studios (coming soon!) will provide some cool ways to connect with our artists on an ongoing basis. We think there’s a lot of value in people being connected to the creative process, as part of supporting it. We want to get value flowing back from from artists to their supporters.
We’re also going to roll out a system that incentivizes those who share and promote our releases. One of our mottos is “Everyone Is A Distributor”; we want to make it possible for anyone to pick up a release, promote it to their friends and acquaintances (or their “social graph”), and get feedback on how well their promotion is doing. It’s going to be less about “download, support” and more about a game-like economy that gets people really active around VODO works and releases. But I shouldn’t say more until we actually release VODO 2.0. It’ll be fun to see how people respond to it.
Related GigaOm Pro Content (subscription required): The Quest to Monetize File Sharing