Funny Business with Jane Wells

BitTorrent's PR makeover includes Moby, Madonna and more

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BitTorrent has long been one of the most popular ways to move large files like movies over the Internet quickly, with more than 170 million users. The problem is more than a few of those users have been using the free and open platform to share pirated content.

"The reason they use it to move around illegally traded movies is because it's the best way to move larges files, not because BitTorrent's got any relationship with piracy," said Matt Mason, the company's head of marketing. He added the company has never been sued.

"BitTorrent is like the MP3—it's a new disruptive technology. If you remember 10 years ago, lots of people thought the MP3 was something for piracy," Mason said. "Now today, we know that it's a really fantastic technology that lots of industries, including the music business, have gotten a lot of benefit from."

As you can tell from the above statement, BitTorrent has embarked on an image makeover. "Facebook uses BitTorrent to update Facebook. Twitter uses BitTorrent to make internal code updates to Twitter, same thing with Wikipedia, Etsy," said Mason. Clients also include the Large Hadron Collider and the Human Genome Project.

The company began a PR offensive this fall with a series of mysterious billboards in major cities. The campaign tapped into concerns about privacy. "Your data should belong to the NSA," read one billboard. Later the billboard changed to, "Your data should belong to you." While a few critics have mocked the campaign as hypocritical, Mason said more than 90 percent of the social media mentions were positive. "It showed us that in this post-NSA world that we live in, people are worried about servers," Mason said.

And what company relies on servers to transfer content? Netflix, for one. Netflix may be the real target of BitTorrent's new campaign, as the two companies have been trading jabs over which one rules the Web.

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BitTorrent is rolling out new products—some of which are not free. And one of them is a streaming service planned for 2014 called BitTorrent Live. Company founder Bram Cohen hopes it will become the low-cost de facto protocol for streaming. "My goal is to kill off television," Cohen said last year. Mason explained that with BitTorrent Live, "the audience is the server farm. In tests we've had up to 5 million people watching a stream with a delay time of less than two seconds."

Meantime, the company is also teaming up with major performers including Lady Gaga, Madonna, Moby and Linkin Park.

"Instead of just saying, 'No, we're not just for people pirating music, software, whatever.' They're actually investing energy, time and money," said Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. Shinoda used BitTorrent to promote his StageLight software, a how-to for recording and producing music. The impact was immediate. "We had a 60,000 percent spike in traffic. I mean, it was astronomical," he said.

Moby also used a product called BitTorrent Bundle to release his new album, "Innocents," with lots of extras. These include individual tracks, or "stems," from songs that fans can download and remix as they choose.

I sort of compared people who complain about Spotify or BitTorrent to old guys yelling at trains, or like people complaining about the weather. The last time I checked, the trains and the weather aren't paying attention.

"It's just so exciting, to take a song that I've written, put out into the music world, and have complete strangers reinterpret," said Moby. "I know some musicians are driven crazy by that, but I love it." However, even though fans can sell their remixed versions without compensating him, he's not bothered. "Anyone who can figure out how to make money out of music in 2013, God bless," Moby said.

Making money in the music business has become an increasingly difficult career path, but Moby and Shinoda say musicians have to adapt to technology. "I sound like the Borg, but resistance is futile," said Moby. "I sort of compared people who complain about Spotify or BitTorrent to old guys yelling at trains, or like people complaining about the weather. The last time I checked, the trains and the weather aren't paying attention."

Shinoda envisions a business model where musicians make money around the music. "It's almost like the song file itself becomes an ad for the larger experience, and, to be honest, our band is always about the larger experience."

Fourteen years after Napster turned the industry on his head, change continues to sweep over the music business. "My naive belief is that if, as a musician, I make good music, which some people would argue that I don't, somehow the results will kind of look after themselves," Moby said with a shy smile. He admitted some might suggest it's easy for him to say that, since he's already been successful. "I hope, even if I'd sold no records, that I would still have this ethos."

—By CNBC's Jane Wells; Follow her on Twitter: @janewells