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Frankel, who recently moved from San Francisco to New York City, now works full time at his company, Cockos (don't ask), which is focused on an audio-production suite called Reaper. He constantly improves it, and he stays in close touch with his customers, who number in the tens of thousands rather than the millions. "There's no goal of growing a certain amount or having an exit strategy," he says. "It's just about enjoying the process and doing the right thing." He would certainly never describe himself as the world's most dangerous geek, as Rolling Stone did in 2004. "I don't see piracy as really being that dangerous," he says. "Ultimately, people who have business models that depend on strong controls for everything those are flawed models. And I say that as a software developer, where there's a certain level of piracy." Gnutella is ancient history to him. "Digital piracy: Has it destroyed the music industry? No. Has the music industry had to adapt? Sure, and many would say for the better. You have people focusing more on quality, smaller bands, things like that."
"As far as the big business of hits and pop music, did that suffer?" he continues. He shrugs and laughs. "I hope so."
Of the four horsemen, Bram Cohen is the only one who still works on the same project he started 10 years ago. He is the co-founder and chief scientist of BitTorrent, a respectable San Francisco firm that pursues commercial applications for Cohen's stunningly effective content-distribution technology.
It's a curious company: a legitimate business built on a technology that is still used to violate copyright on a grand scale. Even though BitTorrent has an installed base of something like 80 million users, it functions a lot like a start-up. A relatively small slice of what goes on on BitTorrent is legal one recent study put it at 11%. A relatively small slice of that small slice generates income for BitTorrent.
Just as Fanning did with Snocap, Cohen tried to move his creation out of the realm of mass piracy and into the legit world of trading bits for money. In 2007, in what was at the time a shocking development, BitTorrent partnered with 20th Century Fox, Paramount, Warner Bros. and MGM, among others, to form the Torrent Entertainment Network, offering movies, TV shows and video games for purchase and rental.
Like Fanning, Cohen learned that getting out of the piracy business is harder than it looks. "Everything about it was a disaster," he says. The Torrent Entertainment Network shut down at the end of 2008. In retrospect, you can see why it didn't work. BitTorrent isn't user-friendly enough for a mass audience, and on a deeper level it's just too efficient. It moves huge amounts of data quickly and virally. When you want to attach dollars to data, you have to slow the bit stream down, track it and control it using inelegant technologies like digital-rights management (DRM), which restricts what users can do with what they buy.
"I learned a lot of lessons from that failure," Cohen says ruefully. His strategy now is to work with people who want what he has to offer: rapid, viral digital distribution. "Instead of going to major content holders and paying them up front for the privilege of trying to leverage our channel, we're just taking the very large channel we have and going to people who are interested in doing things in a much more open manner."