BitTorrent has long been a conduit for sharing content illegally, but the company has a new model for artists to persuade users to pay up

By Kyle Anderson
Updated October 04, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

When Madonna set out to distribute her new short film secretprojectrevolution (which premiered Sept. 24), she didn’t turn to a boutique studio shingle or to an Internet powerhouse like iTunes or Netflix. She chose BitTorrent, the 170 million-user-strong network whose name is synonymous with piracy.

In reality BitTorrent, founded in 2001, is crucial to the Web. Its primary function is allowing companies including Facebook and Wikipedia to move massive amounts of data more efficiently, which makes BitTorrent responsible for anywhere from 20 to 40 percent of any given day’s Internet traffic. The company’s income stems from premium software sales, technology licensing, and a smattering of advertising. But like Napster before it, BitTorrent became easily exploited by users looking to illegally share copyrighted material. That has led to a rash of lawsuits — hundreds of thousands filed against users since 2010.

Part of the reason BitTorrent is now reaching out to partner with musicians and record labels is to turn some of those pirates into paying customers. By giving Madonna, Linkin Park, and others access to BitTorrent users and encouraging them to give away freebies (like Madonna’s new film), the company hopes to create a more direct link between artist and consumer — at no cost to the artist. ”Linkin Park have 57 million fans on Facebook, and they wanted to do a thing where they message their fans about a charity event. The reply they got back [from Facebook] was that it was going to cost $250,000,” says BitTorrent’s vice president of marketing, Matt Mason. ”If you build an audience of 57 million people, it’s a bitter pill to swallow to be told you have to spend money to talk to them.” Linkin Park recently partnered with BitTorrent to push their customized version of StageLight, a music-production program. ”If this had happened even five years ago, it would have been entirely different because both the artists and the labels were super defensive back then,” says band member Mike Shinoda.

According to BitTorrent’s model, free music, video, and software would become a gateway for artists who could later offer downloaders concert tickets, merchandise, or premium content for a price. It’s a more straightforward version of the give-away-a-little, get-back-more philosophy behind Spotify’s preview streams and iTunes Radio’s purchase buttons. BitTorrent also has the law on its side: Despite all those lawsuits brought against users for stealing copyrighted material, recent legal decisions have softened the culpability of services such as YouTube that merely provide a forum for uploaders.

Piracy will always be a problem, but BitTorrent hopes that the music industry (and, eventually, movie studios) will embrace the network’s legitimate side — and maybe monetize it on their own. Should early adopters like Madonna and Linkin Park see returns in the form of paying customers lured by free offerings, expect this nudge forward to grow into a full-on assault on the digital floodgates. And BitTorrent will have the biggest ark available.