When you pirated Outkast in 2003, could you imagine a world where you could get royalties for owning an MP3 copy? At a time when the NFT and web3 debate is heating up, hip-hop legend and innovator Nas is selling two of his singles as NFTs, which fans can buy to claim streaming royalties. The popularity of musical NFTs brings up a particularly interesting debate: is blockchain running counter to the free and open virtues of torrenting? Or is it battling gatekeeper censorship that content pirates aim to overthrow?
Artists and fans
The most divisive period in the history of digital entertainment was the Napster era and the mass adoption of BitTorrent in the 2000s. This era transformed the music and film industries, pitting artists against fans. The period ended with a dramatic increase in intellectual property enforcement, which coincided with a massive improvement in consumer choice for digital goods (think Spotify, Netflix, Apple Music, etc.).
The rise of Web3 has once again brought attention to concepts such as digital ownership, intellectual property management, and creators’ rights. Critics of Web 3 often compare it negatively to the ethos surrounding torrenting. Their argument is that torrenting embodies a “radical opposition to intellectual property” and creates an internet where content is more open, free, and accessible, while blockchain does the opposite.
This misses several important points. First, while some are just trying to save some cash, many are doing so because of the convenience of official paid sources, and the torrent movement is best understood as a consumer pushback against outdated business models caused by rapid technological change. In this regard, web3 is definitely the spiritual successor of that era.
Another problem with this buzz is that it forgets the actual debates of the period. Philosophical pirates of the day would point to artists being harmed by intermediaries as justification for piracy.
“Artists weren’t hurt because they made all their money from touring” was a clear rallying cry at the time, and big publishers were often portrayed as villains. In fact, torrenting’s impact on record sales likely hurt publishers and artists’ bottom lines. To describe the torrenting movement entirely as Web 1.0 proponents’ opposition to the rise of Web 2.0 is a “tinted glasses” approach that ignores the human cost of content piracy.
In addition, many musicians who assert their rights and appear to be on the side of publishers have also been dragged into the quagmire, which is not a good image for the movement’s moral high ground.
At the same time, web3 is not just about content acquisition, it’s about what you can do with that content. In other words, the utility and value of content, especially for creators who are at the heart of the matter. When it comes to overthrowing and dismantling gatekeepers, web3 builders and torrenters share many of the same goals.
However, Web3 provides creators and fans with better tools such as enforceable scarcity, transparency, fundamental ownership, and clear provenance. It’s easier than ever for artists to own their content directly and maintain access to their communities. So while web3 pays homage to torrenting in a way, it actually provides the infrastructure for a more meaningful and economically empowering model for artists and their fans.
Overthrow the gatekeeper
Torrenting is similar to blockchain in that they are both peer-to-peer decentralized technologies. With the rise of NFTs, blockchain is also becoming a more common method of content distribution — another BitTorrent hallmark. One of the key differences between these technologies is the attitude of their users towards intellectual property.
In the age of torrenting and web3, creating is hard, fun, and rewarding and celebrated. Intellectual property rights are a way to ensure that these creative acts continue to occur. In the early IP system, the creator’s value appeared to be overwhelmingly held by gatekeepers, rent seekers, and intermediaries. What this framework ignores is that these intermediaries are only a means to the problem of “discovery”.
The creative act of being locked in an empty room doesn’t help an artist pay rent. So there’s the rise of publishers, labels, managers, brokers, and everyone else. Like it or not, this group has been incredibly successful over a long period of time, given the specifics of technology and distribution. Also, finding that the problem is by no means gone as a major problem
However, what has sparked such intense conflict in the age of torrenting is the perception that the power and value of such discovery devices has grown far beyond the creative talent they are supposed to support, especially in an age of rapid technological change.
A major goal of web3 is to fundamentally remove gatekeeper status. One of the problems with web3 is that they think gatekeepers are everywhere, with these transparent and decentralized tools, it’s clear that your hard-earned money goes directly to the creator or project you want to support.
Open ledgers, smart contracts, and white papers stand in stark contrast to the airtight confidentiality contracts that creators were forced to sign in the old world. People want to see new mechanisms to protect creators, as intellectual property has done in the past, and we can now rest assured that the benefit is the creators themselves. In the words of one artist, the technology allows for “more creators, more music, and more human experience.” To attribute this issue to “the intellectual property rights were not good then, but the intellectual property rights are good now” completely ignores the significance of these two movements.
Fight for your rights
NFTs will not completely replace albums or physical art. They will create new experiences for fans and will have a major impact on licensing and the ability of creators to make a living.
I’ve spent more than four years building Twitch’s music products, and have spent a considerable amount of time working in the DMCA’s “mine,” so I’m all too familiar with the headaches that come with digital intellectual property enforcement in the United States.
NFTs are a clearer, more transparent, actionable and efficient way to do business. All ownership details are written in simple computer-understandable terms, not buried in legalese. Plus, the simplicity of these contracts will encourage more use of licenses — just as the move to easy-to-consume MP3s was the beginning of the music streaming industry. It turns out that if you make a product that makes it easy for people to do the right thing, people will want to do the right thing.
This means that NFTs can lower the barriers to cooperation and create opportunities to motivate fans to become creators themselves. I like the idea that owning an album also gives fans the right to mix/sample it, play it in a stream, play it in a bar, or include it in a movie or podcast soundtrack.
Of course, any rights transferred using NFTs must be owned by the artist or passed on by the owner. That’s why independent artists will drive innovation and early adoption in this space – they keep a right for themselves, which gives them more room to maneuver.
Even contracted and represented artists will have the opportunity to participate, perhaps issuing NFTs of art and collectibles based on their likenesses or the art they create. I love seeing creators who use NFTs as badges of merit or as a pass to a concert or other live event. Many musicians have found that using these new tools has successfully transformed their fan clubs with outright ownership and the opportunity to build a community together.
Collaboration, not litigation
Blockchain technology offers artists a direct way to build a community with their fans, allowing them to identify fans, give or sell things to fans without intermediaries, and form communities with shared artwork and signals.
Together, these tools provide more community-building power than was available to artists 20 years ago, without the intermediaries that used to control consumers.
So let’s take a breath and give creators more time to explore this new space. If intellectual property law helps protect the new things that are being built, let us applaud it. It’s worth celebrating: The most important tenets of the recent tech movement are still valid—creating art is difficult, and creators and their creations are worth protecting.