Over a decade ago, BitTorrent inventor Bram Cohen revolutionised the way we download videos and other files in a time-efficient manner. Now he is one of the lead developers of a new protocol called BitTorrent Live. This protocol has only just been launched, and it is set to revolutionise how artists can stream video online in real-time – offering significant innovations in resilience and significant reductions in the costs involved.
My name is Dr. Dan James (aka Dan Untitled), and I am the newest trustee for Creative Freedom Foundation. By way of introduction to my new role at CFF, I would like to highlight some of the ways that BitTorrent Live is relevant to my own creative work (providing background to some of my projects), to explain why BitTorrent Live is exciting news for New Zealand artists, and to overview some of the potential implications that need to be addressed in copyright law as this technology develops.
My first art project that utilised video streaming was an event I curated entitled Intimacy and In.yer.face (2006, Litmus Research Initiative). This event took place at the former Museum of Wellington building (prior to Te Papa, a building which is now part of Massey University’s Wellington campus). Four different performance/installation artworks took place in different parts of this historical building, and each artwork was broadcast in real-time for an online audience. The artworks were all presented simultaneously. Onsite audiences wandered around the building experiencing snippets of each work. Online audiences had a different experience, navigating from page to page on the project website (which is now offline again).
For Intimacy and In.yer.face I was curator, but I have also utilised webcasting as an artist too. In the performance Breakfast Party at my Studio (2011), for example, I mixed audio and video live for an intimate audience in my studio in Wellington (morning NZ time) and webcast the mix to another audience who were situated at the Museum of Modern Art Oxford (evening, UK time).
As the linked TorrentFreak article notes (and as I can attest from experience), one key restriction of webcasting is that it becomes less technically robust the more viewers are watching. With BitTorrent live, the reliability will increase when more people tune in to the broadcast. Each person that tunes in shares bits of data with other viewers, so the larger the swarm gets, the easier it becomes to receive these pieces of video – the broadcast becomes more and more resilient as viewers join in. Webcasting is also limited because it becomes much more expensive if you intend to reach a large audience. With BitTorrent Live the inverse is true – there are no additional costs if more viewers join.
The protocol is an extremely exciting innovation for any content creator who would like to broadcast their work, and it is especially exciting news for New Zealanders. One inherent limitation to working as an artist in New Zealand is our geographical isolation from the rest of the world. Before web technologies enabled instantaneous connection, New Zealand artists needed to travel vast distances in order to expand their audience reach. The ability to reach broad audiences without the associated travel costs is a significant drawcard. With the invention of BitTorrent Live this becomes more robust and cheaper than it has ever been.
I am known as a mashup artist – I perform audio and/or video mixes regularly with the Messed Up / Bootie NZ crew. Founded by Felix Five, Messed Up is New Zealand’s longest-running mashup show (4-7pm NZ time every Saturday on RadioActive.fm). Bootie NZ is the New Zealand franchise of the world-renowned Bootie brand of mashup parties/events.
Because of my mashup work, some readers might incorrectly assume that I am advocating for BitTorrent Live as an easy way to illegally broadcast the copyrighted work of others. That is simply not the case. The creation of a mashup – combining material from two or more existing sources to create a new and unique outcome – is a relatively new artform and it is legal in some progressive copyright law systems. It is unclear whether or not it is protected in New Zealand, but it is misleading to flatly refer to the artform as illegal. The current trend in the online environment is to automatically scan audio and video content for potential copyright infringements (sometimes ordering the work to be immediately taken down, based on accusation alone and without recourse for the accused), but this trend is not fair for artists and not based on expert judgement of copyright infringement. Artists of any discipline should be treated as innocent until proven guilty. New Zealand law has some provisions for ‘fair dealing’ (‘fair use’ is a similar parallel concept in US law), but this does not provide adequate protection for artists who make mashups. A mashup is a new and unique creative outcome that should be considered distinct from the prior creative works that it references. I discuss these issues in more depth in the catalogue for Fair Deal, an exhibition I curated in 2012 (the catalogue is available for free download through the link provided).
There are numerous legal applications of BitTorrent Live that will present exciting opportunities for New Zealand artists. Musicians might want to robustly broadcast a concert to a large online audience; film-makers might want to hold an online screening of their work at high resolution; a poet might want to broadcast a reading of their work – the list goes on. The potential applications extend well beyond the creative industries too. Those in the education sector, for example, might wish to deliver a lecture to a large remote audience. A software company might want to offer a broadcast instructing users on the details of a new update. Once the mobile apps are developed, the possibilities will extend even further. The potential for illegal use does not outweigh the substantial benefits of the platform that Cohen and his team have pioneered. I certainly look forward to experimenting with BitTorrent Live myself, and I also look forward to engaging with you as the newest trustee for CFF.
Dr. Dan James