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Radiohead frontman takes stage with BitTorrent to test paywall

BitTorrent's paywall system launches via a bundle from Radiohead's Thom Yorke to see whether fans will pay for content. The move could end up upending the crowd-funding world in the process.

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Thom Yorke's first solo album in eight years is only available as a BitTorrent Bundle. Thom Yorke

If you think torrent technology is synonymous with stealing content, BitTorrent wants you to think again.

BitTorrent, the progenitor of the torrent, teamed up Friday with superstar musician Thom Yorke to make good on a two-year-old promise to figure out how to get people to pay for torrents. The solution comes in the form of a paygate built into the latest BitTorrent Bundle -- the first time that torrents have been wedded to payments.

"This first paygate, we're doing as a test," said Matt Mason, BitTorrent's chief content officer, "but we're testing a finished product. We're going to move quickly so that other artists can use paywalls."

Yorke's album, his first solo project in eight years, is called "Tomorrow's Modern Boxes." On the free side of the paygate, you get the song and video for "A Brain in a Bottle." Once you pay $6, you get the rest of the album: seven more new songs from Yorke and the cover art.

"If it works well, it could be an effective way of handing some control of Internet commerce back to people who are creating the work," Yorke said in a statement. "The torrent mechanism does not require any server uploading or hosting costs or 'cloud' malarkey."

Traditional torrents are a decentralized technology for sharing files of any size with a geographically disparate group. Notorious for fueling pirate sites like The Pirate Bay, they're also used to legally share music, TV, and movies. They're also used by companies like Google and Facebook to share large files internally.

BitTorrent Bundles, however, are a new kind of torrent that includes a packaging protocol. Bundles allow their creator to section off files behind a gate that swings open when you complete a form.

When Bundles were first introduced in 2013, the gate was limited to email addresses. When you download and start the torrent, you get only some of the torrents' files. To get the rest, you must submit your email address to the Bundle's creator.

Essentially, you get free content while the Bundle's creator gets your email address for marketing purposes.

But the Bundle was always intended as more than a way to get an email address. It was designed to make money for artists by letting them sell directly to their fans and cut out the middleman.

Mason said the Bundle origins date back to a speech that BitTorrent CEO Eric Klinker gave at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago on making money from entertainment piracy. Klinker wanted to build a system, Mason said, that goes "with the grain of the Internet, which means it has to be decentralized in nature and put end-users in control."

He wanted to figure out how to make money off piracy, or at least how to help creators make money off piracy. BitTorrent itself won't see much from Bundle paygates, at least in the near future. Mason said that BitTorrent will take only a 10 percent cut after the creators pay any transaction fees. Bundle paygates will accept either PayPal or credit cards in more than 140 currencies.

There's also little fear of data-mining. By default, BitTorrent has no access to customer or usage data from a Bundle. It's up to the Bundle creator to choose to share usage data with BitTorrent. And fans can only download the same Bundle a limited number of times before they find themselves locked out.

The impetus for the Bundle, Mason said, "comes from a genuine desire to fix [online sales and distribution] for artists on the Internet."

Bundles have attracted a wide range of entertainers since 2013. More than 10,000 content creators have registered to use the tool, with more than 100 million Bundle downloads from more than 450 published Bundles. Bundles have been made by best-selling authors, Grammy-nominated musicians and Academy Award-winning film makers, including Public Enemy, Madonna, Moby, the Pixies, Drafthouse Films, Tim Ferriss and Marc Ecko.

Dubstep band Zed's Dead made a BitTorrent Bundle in June that it said helped bring in new fans. Previous albums hadn't charted in the Billboard Top 10, but the new one promoted with the Bundle reached No. 4 on the Dance/Electronic chart.

"An email address is infinitely more valuable than a Twitter follower. If somebody's putting in their email address, it's good to know that they want more of a behind-the-scenes look," Zed's Dead representative Brent Underwood told CNET.

In the coming months, Mason said that BitTorrent will introduce threshold gates to Bundles. Once a fan pays to unlock the premium content behind the first gate, a second gate will open once a threshold sum determined by the Bundle creator -- for example, $1 million -- has been raised.

"We're doing this because we see a way to do something good," Mason said. "If there wasn't a way to do something good, we wouldn't bother with it."