Warner joins Nokia’s “Comes with DRM”

Nokia now has three of the Big Four labels signed on for its upcoming “Comes With Music” service, which is expected to launch later this year. EMI hasn’t signed up yet, but apparently it is planning to. Although the terms of the deals are unknown, Nokia has reportedly paid the record companies millions of dollars for the right to offer some of their songs for download, and will build some of that cost into the price of Nokia handsets. Not surprisingly, Warner boss Edgar Bronfman Jr. is full of visionary enthusiasm for the project:

“Nokia’s Comes With Music service will be a significant step forward in the evolution of digital music. It’s the first global initiative to fundamentally align the interests of music companies with telecommunications companies.”

Who knows, maybe this time all of Edgar Jr.’s pronouncements about a revolutionary step in digital media will actually come true — unlike, say, his similar pronouncements about the benefits of a merger between Seagram and French media conglomerate Vivendi, a deal that would eventually vaporize billions of dollars in shareholder value, along with a substantial chunk of his Montreal-based family fortune. But let’s not dwell on that. And I’m also not going to mention how Edgar has repeatedly pledged that he has “gotten religion” about the need for progress in the music industry, only to repeatedly demonstrate the exact opposite whenever it comes time to actually do something.

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Is a music “tax” paid to ISPs the answer?

This is a big issue, with lots of sides to it, and I’m not going to try and get into them all right now, but it’s worth noting that Warner Music — the label run by Edgar Bronfman Jr. (who blew a few billion dollars worth of his family’s booze money on an ill-fated merger with Vivendi way back when) — has hired music-industry veteran Jim Griffin to create an ambitious, and possibly wrongheaded, digital music licensing entity that would see consumers pay their Internet service providers a monthly fee in return for the right to access music online.

Griffin outlines the idea a little in an interview with Portfolio magazine, and notes that it isn’t his idea but has been around a long time — it’s known as a “compulsory license,” and it was what helped the radio industry get out of the trouble it was in when it first became popular as an entertainment medium. Record labels argued that if people could listen to whatever they wanted for free on the radio, no one would buy albums and go to live shows. Sound familiar? Of course, radio play has sold billions of records and made the industry billions of dollars, but there you go.

In any case, Griffin wants to apply the same idea to downloading — and he’s not the only one. The Songwriters Association of Canada has proposed a similar thing, and so have other groups (the EFF has been proposing something similar since 2004). And ISPs are hopping on board this particular train in many cases, in part because they are being threatened with legislation in France and elsewhere that would hold them liable for policing their networks for copyright infringement. But does that make it a good idea? I don’t think so. And however Jim and others describe it, to me it sounds a lot like a tax. Mike Arrington goes further and calls it “protection money.”

Griffin says that “eventually” advertising might cover the charges, and those who wanted to surf without ads would have the choice to pay the fee. But it sounds like in the beginning the fee would be mandatory — even for those who don’t do any downloading at all. Does that sound fair? No. We have mandatory fees for things like education and road-building, but I don’t think music licensing falls into the same category. What about people who pay for songs legally through iTunes — do they get a free pass, or do they have to pay twice? Maybe Warner sees this as a way to put Apple out of business.

And what if such a fee is instituted — what about the movie companies, and other media companies? What about photographers? And what about the billions of dollars in software that is pirated online? After you add all the fees for those content creators, we’ll all be paying $100 for our Internet access (which of course the ISPs have started filtering and shaping because of all the downloading). And then there’s the goat rodeo that would be involved in figuring out who gets the money collected. Or maybe we could just let the ISPs and the music labels work all that out — I’m sure they would do it fairly, right?

Warner: When in doubt, sue someone

Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation has the details on a lawsuit that Warner Music has launched against Seeqpod, a music search engine that has become popular over the past few months — largely because it is super-fast, and allows users to play songs directly in their browser after they find them. Songza.com is another similar music-search engine, although the user interface is much more stripped down (it was developed by Aza Raskin, the 24-year-old son of legendary Apple designer Jef Raskin), and it recently announced a deal with Seeqpod.

As Fred notes in his post, this lawsuit is just the latest attempt by the music and content industries to go after anything that functions as a search engine, on the argument that if they allow people to search for copyright-infringing files then they are contributing to that copyright infringement (which was the central point of the Napster and Grokster cases). What makes Seeqpod.com and Songza a little different is that they actually allow you to play the file, even though it resides somewhere else.

It will be interesting to see where this one goes, if only because it has implications not just for search engines but also for other music-related services, such as the Yahoo Music built-in mp3 player the company launched not long ago — part of Yahoo exec Ian Rogers’ vision of a distributed music network that finds content wherever it is and makes it playable. There are other services as well, including G2p.org, that let you find music easily (and I just found another one about 10 minutes ago called FindTheTunes.com). Can the record industry stop them all?

TW wants to have cake, eat it too

As several outlets are reporting, HBO plans to launch a trial project called HBO On Broadband, in which subscribers can watch the channel’s programs — such as the highly acclaimed series The Wire — on their computers for several weeks after they air. Of course, the programs can’t be downloaded or transferred to another device, and they eventually expire, but it’s still a step forward, if only a limited one.

As the Hollywood Reporter notes, however, an interesting twist to this particular offering is that HBO is a subsidiary of Time Warner, the media giant that has confirmed its cable subsidiary is rolling out metered Internet access. In other words, one part of the TW empire is giving you more content to watch — content that sucks up the gigabytes — and the other is planning to charge you by the gigabyte.

That may fly with the boys in finance, but if I were a Time Warner cable subscriber and an HBO fan, I would feel like I was getting squeezed between a rock and a hard place. Cynthia Brumfield of IPDemocracy doesn’t think it’s really that big a deal, but I think it’s a sign of the conflicting pressures that media conglomerates like TW find themselves under. Steve Bryant of Reel Pop has more on the HBO deal.

Beware of the “standpatters”

Great quote from Jack Warner, founder of Warner Brothers, which I found on Marc Andreessen’s excellent blog (a blog I wish he had more time for). Warner was talking about movies, but I think — and I assume Marc agrees — that it applies to all kinds of things:

“Every worthwhile contribution to the advancement of motion pictures has been made over a howl of protest from the standpatters, whose favorite refrain has been, ‘You can’t do that.’ And when we hear that chorus now, we know we must be on the right track.”

The quote comes from Neal Gabler’s book An Empire of Their Own, about the rise of the Hollywood studios.