When you were hacking Outkast in 2003, could you have imagined a world where you would earn royalties for owning a copy of that MP3?
At a time when NFT and web3 reviews are reaching fever pitch, hip-hop legend and innovator Nas is selling two of his singles as NFT, that fans can buy to claim streaming royalty rights. The growing popularity of music NFTs brings to light a particularly interesting argument: is blockchain antithetical to the free and open virtues of torrenting? Or is he fighting the same gatekeepers that content pirates sought to overthrow?
Artists versus fans
The most controversial period in the history of digital entertainment was the Napster era and the massive adoption of the use of BitTorrent in the 2000s. This era forever changed the music and film industries and pitted artists against fans. The end of this period saw a surge in the application of intellectual property which coincided with the introduction of massively improved consumer options for digital goods (think Spotify, Netflix, Apple Music, etc.).
The rise of Web3 has again brought attention to the concepts of digital property, intellectual property management and creator rights. Web3 critics often draw negative comparisons to the philosophy that surrounded torrenting. The argument is that the embodied torrent “radical opposition to intellectual property” and created an Internet where content was more open, free and accessiblewhile blockchain does the opposite.
NFTs can lower the barrier to entry for collaboration and create opportunities to inspire fans to become creators themselves.
It misses a few points. First, while some torrents were just to save money, many did so because the convenience was overwhelming compared to official paid sources. The torrent movement is best understood as a consumer backlash against outdated business models triggered by rapid technological change. In this regard, web3 is absolutely a spiritual successor to this era.
Another problem with this hot take is that it overlooks the actual proceedings of the period. Philosophical-leaning pirates of the time would argue that artists were disadvantaged by intermediaries as a valid cause for piracy.
“Artists don’t get hurt because they make all their money touring” was a distinct rallying cry of the moment, and big publishers were usually portrayed as the bad guys. In reality, the impact of torrenting on record sales is probably harming the profitability of publishers and artists. To reframe the torrent movement exclusively as opposition to the rise of Web 2.0 by Web 1.0 proponents is an exercise in “rosy glasses” that ignores the human costs of content piracy.
Additionally, many musicians who claimed their rights and seemed to side with the publishers were dragged through the rhetorical mud well, which was not a great look for the moral height of the movement.
Meanwhile, web3 isn’t just about accessing content – it’s about what you can do with that content. Usefulness and value of the content, in other words, particularly for creators who are at the heart of the subject. Web3 builders and torrents share the same goals when it comes to dethroning and disintermediating gatekeepers.
However, web3 gives creators and fans much better tools for this fight, such as enforceable scarcity, transparency, radical ownership, and clear provenance. It’s becoming easier than ever for artists to directly own their content 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 cost-effective model for artists and their fans.
Dethrone the Guardians
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 way to distribute content – another feature of BitTorrent. One of the main differences between these technologies is their users’ approach to intellectual property rights.
What people have always appreciated in both the torrent and web3 era is that the acts of creation are challenging, interesting, and worth rewarding and celebrating. Intellectual property is a means of ensuring that these acts of creation continue to occur. In previous intellectual property regimes, the value of creative acts seemed overwhelmingly captured by custodians, rent-seekers and intermediaries. What is missing from this framing is that these intermediaries were only a means to resolve the “discovery”.
With nothing but love for my fellow shower singers, creative acts locked away in an empty room aren’t going to help an artist pay the rent. Hence the rise of publishers, labels, managers, agents and everything in between. Love it or hate it, this group has been incredibly successful for a very long time given the specifics of the technology and means of distribution. And discovery has by no means disappeared as a major problem – let me show my collection of NFT Discords that have “shill on Twitter” rooms if you need more persuasion.
What sparked such intense conflict in the age of torrents, however, was the belief that this device of discovery had grown in power and value far out of proportion to the creative talent it was supposed to support, especially in a time of rapid technological change.
One of the main goals of web3 is to radically disintermediate the gatekeepers that torrents were looking for. If anything, one of the problems with web3 is that they see guards absolutely everywhere. With these transparent and decentralized tools, you can increasingly know that your hard-earned dollar is going directly to the creators or projects you want to support.
Open ledgers, smart contracts and white papers stand in stark contrast to the impenetrable and confidential contracts that the 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 now we can be sure that it is the creators themselves who benefit. In the words of an artist, the technology enables “more creators, more music and a more human experience”. Presenting this as “bad IP then, good IP now” completely misses the point of both movements.
Fight for your rights
NFTs will not completely replace albums or physical art. You (probably!) won’t need a crypto wallet to listen to music or collect something beautiful. They will create new experiences for fans and have a major impact on both licensing and creators’ ability to earn a living.
I’ve spent over four years building Twitch’s music offerings and have spent much of that time working hard in the DMCA mines, so I know firsthand the headaches that come with enforcing digital IP in the United States.
NFTs are a much clearer, more transparent, interoperable and efficient way to do business. All ownership details are written in terms a simple computer can understand, rather than buried in legalese. Additionally, the simplicity of these contracts will encourage greater use of licensing – just as the transition to easy-to-consume MP3s was the start of the music streaming industry. It turns out people want and will do the right thing if you create products that make it easy for them.
This means that NFTs can lower the barrier to entry for collaboration and create opportunities to inspire fans to become creators themselves. I love the idea that owning an album can also give a fan the right to remix/sample it, play it while it’s streaming, play it in their bar, or include it in the soundtrack of a movie or a podcast.
Naturally, all rights that are transmitted using NFT must belong to the artist or be transmitted by the rights holder. That’s why independent artists will drive innovation and early adoption in the space – they’ve kept a clean rights profile for themselves, which gives them a lot more leeway.
Even signed and represented artists will have the opportunity to participate, perhaps by posting art and collectible NFTs based on their likeness or the art they have created. I love seeing creators using NFTs as merit badges or passes to concerts or other live events. Many musicians are finding success using these new tools to transform their fan clubs with radical ownership and an opportunity to build community together.
Collaboration, not litigation
Blockchain technology provides a direct way for artists to build a community with their fans by allowing them to identify fans, offer or sell things to fans without intermediaries, and form communities with shared artifacts and signals.
Together, these tools offer far more community-building power than artists had 20 years ago, especially when chasing their fans. And all of these things are possible without the middlemen who controlled access to consumers in the past.
So let’s take a breather and give creators the opportunity to explore this new space. And if intellectual property law helps protect new things that are being built, let’s applaud it. We can celebrate and know that the most important tenets of technology movements of the recent past are still in effect: creating things is hard, and creators and their creations deserve protection.