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BitTorrent plans to try paywall, crowdfunding

BitTorrent will ask users to pay $9.95 to help finance the science fiction series “Children of the Machine.”

BitTorrent will ask users to pay $9.95 to help finance the science fiction series “Children of the Machine.”

LOS ANGELES — This might be the latest twist on crowdfunding — or the Web equivalent of seeking a ransom.

BitTorrent, a purveyor of file-sharing technology that is widely used to gain free access to music and films, has come up with a bold proposition for its tens of millions of daily users: Spend $9.95 to help finance a planned science fiction series and gain viewing rights to its eight episodes. Or fail to pay up, and the shows will never be made.

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The prospective series, “Children of the Machine,” is expected to be announced on Monday as part of BitTorrent’s latest and perhaps most daring attempt to make paying customers of an estimated 170 million worldwide users.

While the site eschews piracy, many people employ its open-source file-sharing technology to grab music, films, and television shows — legally or illegally — without charge.

Marco Weber, a seasoned independent film executive, is to produce the new series, based on a pilot written by him and Jeff Stockwell, whose credits include the movie fantasy “Bridge to Terabithia.”

If all goes according to plan, Weber will distribute the pilot — which he would finance himself with help from private investors — free on BitTorrent in December, while offering to make the full series if approximately 250,000 users pay the asking price.

“I think of it as the perfect hybrid between Kickstarter and Netflix,” said Weber, who spoke last week of an effort that merges crowdfunding techniques with a potentially powerful distribution platform.

Once the pilot has its debut, the next steps should move quickly, Weber added. Or else they won’t move quickly enough. “In four to six weeks, I’ll know if it works or if it doesn’t,” he said.

Weber has directed or produced youth-oriented independent films including “The Informers,” based on a Bret Easton Ellis book.

In September, BitTorrent will precede Weber’s foray by inserting a paywall — something it has been avoiding — in one of its so-called bundles. These are downloads that for the last year have been used by musicians, graphic novel publishers, and others to offer their work or promotional material in return for nothing more costly than a user’s e-mail address. The new paywall will permit access to a music bundle from what the company says will be a major artist, still to be named.

“We saw the opportunity to build what we think will become the leading place for independent content creation,” Matt Mason, chief content officer, said of the fee-based initiative.

Mason, who has made the point before, once again stressed that his site circulates sharing technology but does not condone piracy. “People wrongly assume we’re about illegal file-sharing,” he said.

Still, BitTorrent has failed in the past to make entertainment buyers of those who use its wares to share content. In 2008, the company shut down a short-lived operation, called BitTorrent Entertainment Network, that had joined Hollywood companies in offering a menu of movie and television downloads for a price.

Mason, who joined BitTorrent after that venture failed, said he believed it had charged too much — an episode of “Desperate Housewives” cost as much as $20, he noted.

At the same time, he said, the undertaking did little to accommodate the habits of BitTorrent visitors, who tend to be male, young, and inclined to drill deeply into whatever interests them.

In keeping with the peer-to-peer spirit of that audience, BitTorrent in the last year has made available about 10,000 bundles, each of which is controlled not by the company but by an independent artist or other purveyor. So far, free bundles have been downloaded 100 million times.

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