Amazon.com’s Cloud Drive

In the late 1990’s MyMP3.com offered a type of cloud music service.  The company bought tens of thousands of music CD’s, stored the tracks on its servers, and allowed subscribers to create a music locker from those CDs the subscriber owned.  One verified ownership by inserting a physical copy of the CD in a computer’s CD player for the MyMP3.com service to recognize.  Thus “ownership” meant physical possession of the CD, meaning one “owned” all CD’s that one’s friends were willing to loan for the verification process.  UMG Recordings and other record labels sued MyMP3.com out of existence in 2000 because the company had not obtained the copyright licenses necessary to operate the service.

Eleven years later–or two days ago, in other words–Amazon.com unveiled Cloud Player, a storage and music-streaming service.  Ars Technica describes how it works:

Amazon customers 5GB of online storage to use for whatever they please. If they buy an album from Amazon MP3, however, they get 20GB of storage for the year, and all Amazon MP3 purchases are automatically synced to the user’s Cloud Drive without counting against the quota. Users could then use the Cloud Player Android or Web app to stream the music to any compatible device or browser, even if the files themselves had not been synced there.

What licenses does Cloud Player require?  Here’s the Ars Technica headline:  Amazon on Cloud Player: we don’t need no stinkin’ licenses.*  Amazon.com has decided that (in Ars Technica’s words) “since users are uploading and playing back their own music, the original download licenses still apply and no new licenses are necessary.”  Cloud Drive users are uploading their own music or storing music purchased from Amazon.com, so the service does not feature the unauthorized copying of tracks that was MyMP3.com’s foundation. Sony Music–the only major label that responded to Ars Technica’s request for reactions to Cloud Drive–is keeping its “‘legal options open.'”

An 800-lb gorilla challenging the music industry’s interpretation of copyright law?  This will be interesting.

*Bonus Feature:  clip from Treasure of the Sierra Madre, the “no stinkin’ licenses/badges/[insert noun here]” source

The 59th Street (Toll)Bridge Song

In the spring of 1967 Jimi Hendrix released Are You Experienced?, his first album, and The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. My friend Rick bought Sgt. Pepper as soon as it was available and, incredibly excited by what he heard, called and played it for me over the telephone. I first heard “With a Little Help From My Friends”, “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” on a spring afternoon while standing in my kitchen with a bakelite phone receiver pressed to my right ear. My first listening of Are You Experienced? came courtesy of another friend, who played it one Friday evening at full volume in his darkened bedroom. My hair stood on end at the opening chords of “Purple Haze.” I had never before heard music like that.

We experience music more immediately, more personally than any other form of popular culture. Movies and television required (until video-capable iPods and $1.99 episodes of Lost and The Office) that we sit and watch a screen. In my lifetime music has always been portable, first through car radios (my high-school car, a 1965 Plymouth Fury, had only AM radio which means I heard Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” about 1,000 times in 1970 alone), then through the Sony Walkman and its progeny, which led to today’s ubiquitous MP3 players. Technology has allowed us to accompany our lives with a personal soundtrack. We all have music that is ours. 1967 was also the year of The Graduate,plastics,” and the birth of Dustin Hoffman’s career. I recall Dick Cavett asking Hoffman whether sudden fame had changed his life. Hoffman replied “It’s not like Mrs. Robinson plays when I go to the bathroom in the morning.” These days we can all have Mrs. Robinson–the Simon and Garfunkel original or the Lemonhead’s version–playing when we go to the bathroom in the morning.*

I’m thinking about this because of recent exposure to the inevitable boomer-retrospective articles and radio shows about the Summer of Love and the juxtaposition of two articles: Jason Fry’s “The Perils of Online Song Lyrics” in the 5/21 Wall Street Journal (subtitled “Yahoo’s New Lyrics Service Is Promising,But Why Can’t I Copy and Paste the Words?”) and Mark Helprin’s “A Great Idea Lives Forever. Shouldn’t Its Copyright?,” an op-ed piece in the 5/20 New York Times. Helprin argues that copyright law should protect creative works to the same extent that law generally protects rights in personal and real property. Congress can, Helprin asserts, circumvent (my word, not his) the Constitutional provision authorizing Congress to extend a monopoly to authors “for limited times,” by vitiating the meaning of “for limited times:” “Congress is free to extend at will the term of copyright. It last did so in 1998, and should do so again, as far as it can throw.” Helprin is a far-more skilled and practiced polemicist than me, but to my simple mind this expression of his argument falls off the rails before it leaves the station. In its entirety Article I, Section 8, Clause 8 of the Constitution gives Congress the power “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” Congress’s power to enact copyright law must serve the purpose of promoting the progress of useful arts. This argument (in Eldred v Ashcroft) failed to convince the Supreme Court to overturn the Sonny Bono Copyright Term Extension Act, which extended the term to the life of the author plus 70 years, but the Eldred decision does not support the position that Congress can extend the term of copyright at will. Larry Lessig is articulating a more complete and scholarly refutation of Helprin’s argument.

The article about the Yahoo lyrics site explores the confluence of our appropriation of popular music for personal expression and the “propertization” of copyright. As Fry states “[s]ong lyrics are one of those things the Internet might have been made for . . .” Most of use have searched for song lyrics. The Archive of Misheard Lyrics at www.kissthisguy.com is a favorite site. Song lyrics are part of our aural wallpaper, a cultural touchstone, a form of shorthand, titles for the chapters of our lives (I’m in one titled “well . . . how did I get here?“), the raw material for wedding vows, and memory triggers. We hear a phrase in conversation that reminds us of a lyric that transports us to the time in our life associated with that song. (If reading that made you think of Patrick Swayze and Jennifer Grey, good.) Song lyrics are all that but, at the request of copyright holders, you can’t copy and paste lyrics from Yahoo!’s lyric site. According to Nicholas Firth, Chairman and CEO of BMG Music, Inc., a copied lyric is a lost sale–an idiotic comment that ignores the reality in which most of us live. If the choice is between paying a licensing fee to copy a lyric into a blog post and going without I’ll go without. Most people would say the same, even people old enough to remember Mungo Jerry’s “In the Summertime” who did not grow up with file-sharing. I won’t pay the copyright holder a trespassing fee to walk in my own memories.

* It must have been kismet that caused iTunes shuffle to play the S&G version of Mrs. Robinson as I was writing this paragraph.

PS: A student sent me the link to this video a few days ago. Titled “A Fair(y) Use Tale” it summarizes principles of copyright law using clips from Disney animations. Cute, obsessive, and worth a look, if just to wonder: how long did it take to put this together?

One Small Step for BitTorrent,

. . . One giant leap for the mainstream media. The headline of Steven Schwankert’s terse article on InfoWorld.com (29-Nov-06) says it all: BitTorrent makes deals with major studios. 20th Century Fox, Kadokawa Pictures USA, MTV Networks, Lionsgate Entertainment, and Starz Media have entered into licensing agreements to rent or sell movies and television shows on the BitTorrent website.

Microsoft-Universal Royalty Agreement

Microsoft yesterday announced a licensing deal with Universal Music Group under which Microsoft will pay Universal royalties of about $1.00 per unit from sales of its new Zune portable music player, in addition to royalties on downloads from Zune’s online store. Universal said that it would, in turn, pay about half of the royalties it receives to its artists.

This licensing deal represents a shift in industry practices. Apple, for example, pays music companies a royalty on sales from its iTunes online music store but pays nothing on sales of iPods. The recording companies have been trying to get a piece of hardware sales because royalties from online music purchases are only a small piece of the Apple pie. Each iPod contains, on average, about 20 songs purchased from iTunes. At about 4 megabytes/song, that works out to about 80 megabytes — about 1/12th the capacity of the $79 one gigabyte iPod Shuffle or 1/1000th the capacity of the $349 top-end 80 gigabyte model. Apple sold 14 million iPods in the last quarter of 2005 alone, and over 42 million total since introducing the iPod.(1) That’s a lot of non-revenue-generating capacity for record companies to ignore. $1.00 per unit may not seem like a lot compared to the royalty potential in even 11/12ths of the capacity of the iPod Shuffle but it is $1.00 more than the record companies get now.

The Microsoft-Universal deal sets a benchmark for other music industry deals with Microsoft. If the Zune is successful these deals will put pressure on Apple to consider similar deals. Apple has had considerable leverage in its negotiations over music rights because of its 42 million + units sold, but every Zune purchase that results in an unsold iPod shifts the balance of power.

Jeff Leeds, Microsoft Strikes Deal for Music, The New York Times, 09-Nov-06; (1) Mike Musgrove, Big Hit of the Holidays: 14 Million iPods Sold, The Washington Post, 11-Jan-06.