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Comedian Louis C.K. shuns advice--and DRM--for new video

A new stand-up comedy video costing $5 is Louis Szekely's experiment in direct sales in the Internet era: How much money will an inexpensive but easy-to-pirate video make?

Louis C.K.'s site for purchasing his new comedy video.
Louis C.K.'s site for purchasing his new comedy video. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Louis Szekely, a bold, vulgar, and hilarious comedian better known as Louis C.K., released a new $5 video over the weekend that's totally free of DRM copy-protection restrictions.

The move is one piece of smart marketing, at least for somebody who's got good name recognition. Another smart piece is an IAmA interview on Reddit with Louis C.K. where his message--buy the video and forget the corporate nonsense--is most likely to resonate.

The video, "Louis C.K. Live at the Beacon Theater," is available worldwide for those who pay five bucks through PayPal, and there's no digital rights management to curtail copying through encryption technology. That, as comedian fully realizes, makes life easy for those wanting a free a copy free using BitTorrent peer-to-peer file transfer technology.

In a note on his Web site, he offers this plea:

To those who might wish to "torrent" this video: look, I don't really get the whole "torrent" thing. I don't know enough about it to judge either way. But I'd just like you to consider this: I made this video extremely easy to use against well-informed advice. I was told that it would be easier to torrent the way I made it, but I chose to do it this way anyway, because I want it to be easy for people to watch and enjoy this video in any way they want without "corporate" restrictions.

Please bear in mind that I am not a company or a corporation. I'm just some guy. I paid for the production and posting of this video with my own money. I would like to be able to post more material to the fans in this way, which makes it cheaper for the buyer and more pleasant for me. So, please help me keep this being a good idea. I can't stop you from torrenting; all I can do is politely ask you to pay your five little dollars, enjoy the video, and let other people find it in the same way.

The note, Szekely said, was inspired by comments at the Pirate Bay, where people can find pirated content.

"The day before I posted the video I went on Pirate Bay, which I had never visited, and I read the guy's thing where he posts letters from media companies and artists and then his nasty and kind of hilariously chest-beating responses. I thought, 'Jesus. This guy is a piece of work,'" he said. "What do I say to these people? To hope they don't make me regret putting it out there naked like this? So I wrote that little 'to torrent' letter, just being a guy saying, 'Dude. Please?'"

If you buy the video (I did), you receive an e-mail with a password. You log in, and there it is, in all its unencrypted glory: 1.2GB of H.264-encoded MP4 comedy. You can download three copies (he raised it from two earlier today) and stream it twice if you'd rather.

And of course, you can burn a DVD and give it to your pal for Christmas. But seriously, think twice before you do. This is a video that costs less than a lot of iPad games.

Szekely is embarking on a bold experiment by entrusting the fate of his video to goodwill. I think it's a good idea because I happen to have some sympathy with the folks who would prefer to see the artists and authors getting more of the revenue from their work and the big labels and studios and publishing houses getting a little less.

There's a place in the world for copyright and for copying restrictions, and the ease of copying data is out of balance with the difficulty of making, say, a feature-length video. But sometimes the studios and labels are so tight-fisted and bullying that I wish they'd get out of the way and let me have a direct relationship with the artists.

Well, voila. With Szekely, here's that direct relationship, with his production company if not a single individual, but that's close enough for me. It's harder with non-famous artists, of course, and it might not work as well when it's not such a novelty, but for now, kudos for at least experimenting.

On Reddit, he observed that it's harder to steal from a company than from a person: "To steal from someone and not feel bad, you either have to be a sociopath or view the act differently. One way is to remove 'someone' from the equation. You're not stealing from a person. Big companies do a lot to help people view them as less than human," he said.

He's not sure if the approach will stick, but he sounded optimistic.

"Please continue to tell your friends to come and buy the show. If it works, I will continue to release material in this way," Szekely said. "Like I said the jury is out on whether this model works. So far so good."

He's watching how it goes, of course: "I'm learning right this minute, a HUGE amount with this Web experiment. This "Live at the Beacon" like that thing in the movie 'Twister' where they send a bunch of little data-collecting balls up into a tornado and just download the lovely results," he said.

In the interview, he talks about working on more than just his stand-up routines.

He's also a video editor: " I do the whole thing. On season 1, I had an editor and we shared it about half. But season two I edited without any help. It was f***ing hard. And yes, I sit at the MacBook and just put it together from start frame to finish."

And a he's involved in the music, too: "Producing the music is maybe my favorite part of the whole thing. I go into a studio with Matt Kelmer and a handful of great musicians that work under the title "Sweet Pro"...I get to cheat and make music without the training. I ask them for different moods and sounds and they try it. Or we'll say let's go with cello and piano for a while and try a few things there. The cello tremendous. He creates whole pieces by himself and I use them ALL."

And perhaps a second-time movie-maker, if his company, Pig Newton, makes enough from $5 video sales: "What if I make another special like this one and I put it up for 5 bucks again and it goes gangbusters. It makes, say, 8 million bucks. I don't know that that is even possible. I'm trying to find out what the potential is with this one...So it would have to be special number 2 [video] that would keep the money in the company and make a movie. I have always put cash back into the work. The profit I made on last years season of Louie went to buying a new RED EPIC camera which now sits here next to me and a modest but impressive collection of lenses from Germany and England, which now belong to Pig Newton and will be used to shoot said 8 million dollar movie."