Imagine you've used your technology skills to figure out a way to efficiently move large files across the web. As the Internet has become the backbone for digital distribution, the value of your protocol for legitimate distribution has significantly increased. So, too, has its utility for people looking to share content that infringes copyright.
That is, your solution is sometimes used by pirates.
Such is the public-relations challenge faced by BitTorrent, which has been trying to change the way people talk about its protocol. Last month Matt Mason, BitTorrent's vice president of marketing, took issue with media coverage that combined the open-source protocol with instances of piracy. As Mason wrote:
BitTorrent; the open-source protocol, the company, was built for innovation. We don’t endorse piracy. We don’t tally up illegal downloads, and crown pirate-kings.
In making a public case to separate the technology from the way it is used, Mason and BitTorrent want to accentuate the positive:
In partnership with the Internet Archive, artists, labels and studios, we’ve made more than two million pieces of licensed, legal content available for download over the BitTorrent protocol. We’ve built a legit media ecosystem designed to close the gap between creators and fans. In 2012 alone, titles from this collection have been downloaded over 152 million times.
If the comments that follow a TechCrunch article about Mason's post are any indication, BitTorrent will be fighting an uphill battle to change public perception. The majority of those responding clearly felt that the company is responsible for the way its tools are used, even if it has done nothing to host or promote the dissemination of unauthorized digital content.
This is a fight that has been played out before and will be played out again. The VCR, the DVR, commercial-skipping options, the Internet – these technologies and a host of others affect the way existing business models work. Industries built on the challenged models typically push back, buying time and in some cases limiting innovation.
I agree with Matt Mason that we should not conflate a technology with its uses. We also should work harder at adapting to new technologies than we do at trying to put the genie back into the bottle.
Unfortunately for BitTorrent, I haven't had much luck getting people to buy into that argument. Hopefully, Mason can show me how that dance is done.