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With the release of our file-sharing documentary Steal This Film - Part One last year, we were really asking a new question of peer-to-peer distribution. We knew we could use BitTorrent to distribute the film. But could P2P itself create the attention needed to bring big audiences to our message?
The answer was a resounding yes. P2P site The Pirate Bay, with its millions of unique daily users, was the initial point of explosion of interest in Steal This Film. However, sites like Digg, Slashdot and BoingBoing, as well as a host of smaller blogs, all played a part in bringing people into the massive swarm of sharers that has helped us reach more than 2m downloads and an estimated 3m viewers in the 18 months since the film's release.
This isn't purely a producer-to-consumer ratio. While the film did also appear on YouTube, Google Video, Revver and Stage6, the vast majority of our viewers also contributed their own bandwidth and computing power to help deliver Steal This Film to others.
The next part of Steal This Film is released this month and distributed, again free, through the major BitTorrent trackers. In it we try to go beyond the current discussions around file sharing to look at what kinds of social change can be precipitated by communicating this way. In our view the changes wrought by networked peer distribution are historical on the scale of the printing press.
This explains why we're sometimes evasive when people ask us about business models. It's not that we don't want to make money, but we'd rather spend time thinking what a new media age might really look like, what its social and political shape might be, than focus solely on questions of revenue.
At the same time, we're really interested in the dozens of examples of content producers working with what we've heard called the reverse distribution model. Here, content is released free online, then monetised through sales in traditional old media outlets. We know this worked for Loose Change; whether it can work for Steal This Film remains to be seen.
What troubles us about this model is that it will only work in the short to medium term. Since the business models of TV are clearly being challenged, we'd be stupid to bet the farm on these models bankrolling our explorations into new media.
That's why we're 100% behind voluntary payments from the communities that interact with our media. We receive donations every day from people encountering Steal This Film for the first time and who want to help us.
We're proposing a non-profit, distributed supportive payment system (Disps) that, by embedding secure donation information in media files themselves, allows viewers and listeners to make voluntary payments right from the client in which they play media. Such a post-IP compensation system could be elegant, efficient and convenient, avoiding the nastiness of DRM and invasive advertising. We actively seek people to engage with us on this.
As creators, we need to stop asking how to stop people from enjoying our work and start asking how to help them do it. Given the right opportunities, we believe they will help us in turn.
Jamie King, director of Steal This Film; stealthisfilm.com