In 2000, I spent a lot of time downloading music from Napster. I was working on Geekcorps and we had an office at MassMoCA, which had excellent connectivity. Working very long hours to get a new non-profit off the ground, I was listening to a lot of music in the office, and the ability to discover a new artist via Napster, listen to a few tracks, then buy albums via Amazon was one of those experiences that left me thinking, “Man, the internet just makes the world better.”
Obviously, not everyone felt that way, and when Metallica sued Napster in 2000, I was one of the 317,377 users banned from the system. I was also one of the 316,784 (that’s an estimate) users to run de-ban, rebuilding my registry so I could rejoin the network.
I didn’t stay long after the ban. Napster shut down shortly after, and the services that stepped in to replace it were, from the perspective of a music fan, not very good. I rekindled my love affair with independent record stores, bought a lot of used CDs and vinyl, and have generally missed the whole move to BitTorrent and peer to peer filesharing. Chalk one up for the RIAA, I suppose, but with the instant gratification of downloadable, legal music from iTunes and Amazon, I just haven’t been that tempted.
Up until about a week ago. Two things happened to lead me back to the dark side. One is that I was introduced to Dr. Johan Pouwelse, a fascinating guy who’s doing research on the power and potential of peer to peer networks. He’s in the odd position of having extensive funding from the European Union to build extremely powerful peer to peer systems, and he’s (understandably) interested in finding non-infringing uses for peer to peer technology. Pouwelse wondered what I thought about P2P as a method for distributing activist video – I though it was a cool idea, but probably premature, as centralized systems like WITNESS’s Video Hub, as well as more conventional solutions like YouTube, are working reasonably well for video authors. The main problems with activist video aren’t around content blocking but around the difficulty of authoring compelling media and in discovering this media – P2P doesn’t directly help with either problem.
In the course of talking with Pouwelse, I decided to try out his software, Tribler, which combines a peer to peer client, video playback software and some interesting ideas on search. What’s most interesting about the software is the idea that users can use bandwidth as currency, allowing the system to better address the free rider problem and reward users to sharing as well as downloading.
Purely for research purposes :-) I decided to try Pouwelse’s software… which meant finding something I was interested in to search for. Since we’re in the midst of the fourth sumo tournament of the year, the Nagoya Basho, I started looking for match footage. Bingo. Some kind souls have been recording and digitizing NHK’s English-language broadcast of the tourament, and posting it, day by day, in gigabyte-sized files on torrent servers.
It wasn’t even a question. I’m hooked. I’ve been sucking down the files during the workday and spending my evenings watching bouts on the laptop. I picked the right tournament to re-enter the world of filesharing. Asashoryu, the brilliant and controversial Yokozuna, dropped out of the tournament today after a poor call cost him a second loss early in the tournament. Kotooshu, the impressive Bulgarian Ozeki who won the previous tournament, picked up two losses early, but is still very much in the hunt, two wins behind Yokozuna Hakuho, who remains undefeated. And my very favorite, Sekiwake Ama, a scrappy, tiny (by sumo standards) Mongolian technician, started 5-0, before blowing the sixth match to his archnemesis Kotoshogiku. Can’t you feel the excitement?
My main man, Ama, sporting the Nike logo on his kesho-mawashi. Didn’t know Nike was making sumo gear these days.
There’s a few ways to watch sumo from the US, though none of them appear to be sanctioned by NHK, which broadcasts the matches in Japan. The excellent Chiri mo tsumoreba blog features good commentary (neither as comprehensive or as snarky as at Sumotalk) as well as links to match highlights posted on YouTube. Some are commented in English, others in Japanese. While useful, they’re tough if you don’t speak Japanese, as you’ve got to listen very closely for who’s fighting – in watching a full tournament, you can rely on the match card, which I usually find at Goo Sumo. With a match card and a bit torrent client, you can enjoy the entire foot-stamping, salt-throwing, big-men-staring ceremony of the event. Google “torrent nagoya day x” where “x” is the appropriate day of the tournament, and you’ll find a torrent link in no time.
Here’s the thing – I’d vastly prefer to pay for this content. Not out of any sort of sense of legality – for purely practical reasons. NHK has threatened, in the past, to stop broadcasting with English-language commentary. This commentary’s pretty essential for non-Japanese speaking fans. This sport is fast, complicated and extremely subtle, something that benefits greatly from a knowledgeable commentator. If paying NHK for a download – on iTunes, for instance – means they’ll keep producing English commentary, I’ll do my part.
I buy Chris Anderson’s argument in The Long Tail that the Internet makes saleable content that has small audiences. What surprises me is how few media producers seem to understand this argument. NHK will sell you the right to broadcast the bashos, but doesn’t seem interested in taking money from individual consumers, even though they offer premium satellite packages for Japanese speakers living outside the nation.
Here’s the thing, NHK – if there’s a sufficient audience for your content, it’s going to end up on peer to peer networks. Why not give those of us who’d pay for it the chance to do so?
As a bonus, watch Ama beat up Ozeki Chiyotaikai in this video from day 5 from the tournament, created the old fashioned way – with a video camera focused on the television. Can you say “analog hole“, boys and girls? I knew you could.
Added bonus: an Ars Technica piece on Dr. Pouwelse’s research.