Tuesday, June 28, 2005

Grokster Goes Down

Betamax notwithstanding, I can’t say I’m too surprised by the news yesterday that the Supreme Court ruled against Grokster and StreamCast Networks -- the company behind the Morpheus network. Justices ruled that companies such as StreamCast can be held liable for copyright infringement if they encourage customers to illegally share copyright movies and music. The Supremes sent the case to district court, where Grokster and Streamcast will be tried for inducing infringement.

The test in this case was whether there were substantial non-infringing uses for Grokster/Streamcast’s technology. I’d say there certainly were – but Grokster and Streamcast certainly weren’t encouraging many of them. This may be oversimplifying things, but Grokster's business model is an advertising/subscription play, like any other dot-com venture. The carrot with which companies such as Grokster unabashedly lure their user base is free music.

I seriously doubt this ruling is the end of peer-to-peer. There’s something inherently democratic about file-sharing, which has done plenty to break up the death grip that Clear Channel, MTV and major labels have had on music promotion and distribution. As I said earlier, the only flaw in this model was the lack of a licensing or revenue sharing arrangement between the content owners and the distributors. That shortcoming hardly merits a dismantling of the whole enterprise, although I do think Grokster and its ilk should be compelled to augment their business models to include such arrangements.

There are plenty of companies – Weedshare and PassAlong Networks among them – who are proving out a peer-to-peer model that includes content owners. But I’m told that it’s way too easy to download a file-sharing source code, such as Gnucleus, re-skin it, adding place holders for advertising and thus launch a new p2p network.

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Wednesday, June 08, 2005

This is Digital Music's Future?

Originally uploaded by Tommy Perkins.
So today I downloaded MusicGiants, which, according to Businessweek, might be “digital music’s future.” MusicGiants’ big selling point is that its downloads are “CD quality,” a term the company apparently does not view as oxymoronic. Kidding aside, songs ripped at 1100 kbps are certainly a step up in quality from the 128 kbps that most services, such as iTunes, Napster and Wal-Mart, offer.
MusicGiants’ offering is digital music for people who plan to listen to it through something more substantial than earbuds or factory-installed car stereos. As Ted Cohen, EMI’s Sr. VP for digital development and distribution told Businessweek, “They're addressing the biggest compromise that music fans have had to make: trading portability for quality. This solves that dilemma.” Songs cost $1.29, vs. 99 cents or less at most online sites. There's also a $50 annual membership fee (waived for anyone buying more than $250 worth of songs).
MusicGiants’ offering comes as both bandwidth and storage get bigger and cheaper and thus with the presumption that consumers are beginning an inevitable migration towards massive drives and even home entertainment servers from which they can pipe music all over their homes.
The company plans to sell a $9,500, 400-gigabyte device called the SoundVault that would sit in the stereo cabinet, just like a CD-player or receiver. (The package includes hardware, a high-end sound processing card, and networking gear.) That way, MusicGiants' customers could bypass their PCs and load songs directly into their living room stereo.

Some initial likes/dislikes:

1. Dislike: Files come in the Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. I’d prefer an open format, such as Fully Lossless Audio Compression (FLAC) or, frankly, any format that spares me the Apple-Microsoft pissing match. Indeed, the whole system is wired to Microsoft: it uses Windows Media Player 10 software and Microsoft’s Digital Rights Management. But the cult of Michael Porter’s Five Forces Model avers that hell will freeze over before labels and retailers agree to open formats, so thank God for dBpowerAMP. Then again, this is not music meant to be transferred to a variety of different players. It’s supposed to sit on a half-terabyte server and entertain guests in every room.

2. Like: Data comes from All Music Guide. I’ve heard people quibble about things like songwriting credits getting occasionally mixed up on AMG, but, on balance, AMG has the best combination of breadth and depth out there when it comes to music data.

3. Dislike: $50 registration fee. Call me a cheap bastard, but there’s something onerous about having to pay $50 just to have the right to buy music. That said, it’s basically a marketing inducement to go ahead and spend $250 to get the fee waived, which MusicGiants’ audiogeek demographic will have no trouble doing in under a year.

4. Like: 1100 kbps. Sure, a straight WAV file is over 1400 kbps, but that’s splitting hairs. If you really want the best sound and you can’t find the album on vinyl, shell out for DVD-Audio, SACD hybrid, etc.

5. Like: Elegant client. This is an entirely superficial assessment, as I haven’t had time to experiment with things like the playlists. My favorite iTunes feature is the ability to make “smart” playlists that evolve as your music collection changes, can be built using over a dozen different criteria and spare you the need to manually drag and drop songs and albums. Already, however, I’ve noticed that the software has forgotten my user name, although its memory of me might improve when/if I pony up the registration fee. Still, the client looks very easy to navigate and there’s something kind of old school about the “Fidelity Meter” and MusicGiants’ choice of phraseology such as “copy a CD,” as opposed to “ripping” one.

6. Dislike: Privacy/security clause in the end user license agreement (EULA). Oh, well, what else is new? If you don’t want to be seriously annoyed, don’t read these things. Herewith is the offending phrase:
“You agree that you alone [emphasis added] are responsible for maintaining the confidentiality and security of your account. … MusicGiants is not responsible for any losses arising out of the unauthorized use of your member name, password and/or account and you agree to indemnify and hold harmless MusicGiants, its partners, parents, subsidiaries, agents, affiliates and/or licensors, as applicable, for any improper, unauthorized or illegal uses of your account.”
Perhaps this language shows up in every EULA out there, but that’s cold comfort. After reading that, I wasn’t jumping over barrels to give these guys my credit card information.

7. Like: Initial bug fixes. Granted, this is sort of like patting someone on the back for molesting fewer children. But, given the rate at which crappy, beta software is unloaded on the unsuspecting public, I suppose it’s refreshing that MusicGiants was thoughtful enough to remove some of the glass shards from its product. Weeks ago, blogger Brad Hill endured aborted installations after getting the following messages during the installation phase: "MusicGiants optionally uses the Microsoft (R) .NET 1.1 Framework. Would you like to install it now?" and "During setup some third-party installers might be started. Please take care to follow their instructions." Yikes. I would imagine that the tweedy, non-tech-savvy audiophiles for whom this product is intended ran away screaming upon receiving such messages.

8. Like: "Complete Your Collection." Once you get your music loaded onto MusicGiants' library, you can click on this option. You'll be told how many of an artist's tracks you have in "hi-fidelity" (as in high bit rate) and low-fidelity, and you'll be given the option to buy every track you don't already have in one click. This may sound obsessive to some, but I suspect MusicGiants' target customer is obsessive by definition.

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