Music Licensing Proposal

Tuesday 2nd August, 2005
The musical world is a changing place. With the explosion of MP3 and portable devices like the iPod it's all just gone a bit mad and the record industries just can't keep up. The Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) just cannot keep up and they're just doing anything to try and cut down on the lost turnover due to piracy and music sharing.

But who are the winners and losers in all of this? The digital world first brought us the CD player which gave us greatly improved quality and also easier manageability with track skipping, CD Text and other features. Mini-disc had a foot in the market for a while as a digital recording medium with it's Atrac compression and then MP3/CDROM came along and changed the industry for good.

Now, with the expense of just 4MB of storage per track, user's can carry music around on their phone, keyring or watch and still burn it back to a CD if required. Piracy on networks such as Napster and Kazaa became rife and now other systems like Bit Torrent have taken over as the leader in file sharing piracy whilst other sites like iTunes are marketing music legally at discounted prices.

Musical life has changed for me too. I've gone from a single CD system with shelves and shelves full of CDs over to a distributed Sonos Digital Music System. This allows me to play any of my music in any room with an easy to use iPod style remote control. All my CD's are boxed up and stored in the loft and, in reality, I never need to open them ever again.

So where do we go from here?

In what format should I purchase my music and how, legally, do I get it onto my home MP3 music system.

They try to tell us that burning a copy of a music CD is illegal, but is it? Am I allowed to take a backup of it's contents for my own use?

They tell us that ripping a CD to MP3 format may be illegal, but is it? I'm allowed to legally buy and download MP3 format tracks so why can't I make my own from my own CD's I've already purchased?

They include anti-piracy software on purchased CDs, is it illegal to get around them in order to play my legally purchased music on a legally purchased system?

For years it's been common practice to loan a CD to a mate who wants to evaluate it. If they don't like it much they give it back, if they do you have to chase them for it after which they might buy a copy. These days, it's not uncommon for them to take an illegal burned copy or, if they're MP3 savvy, just rip it to their iPod or similar device. In my case I have 600+ music  CDs in my loft that I could loan out, I simply don't need them any more. But is that legal whilst I retain an MP3 copy? Or was the MP3 copy simply illegal in the first place.

If I buy a track on Apple iTunes it contains Apple Digital Rights Management (DRM). This prevents me from giving the file to another iTunes user to play, it's locked to my iTunes ID with an encryption key. I'm not allowed to remove this protection, but I am allowed to burn a CD from it...which DOESN'T contain protection. Am I then allowed to loan this burned CD to a friend? Am I allowed to burn 2? I can rip this CD back to an MP3 which is also unprotected. Is this illegal? I can remove the original DRM from the download using jHymn, again illegal I guess?

As this whole industry is so grey from a legal perspective it's no wonder consumers feel secure downloading music illegally. If ripping a CD is illegal, why do they sell MP3 players? How do we understand the rules about downloads and what it's legal to do with them?

The fact is, it's all a mess and it's going to take an age to clean up. Let me give you an example...

A friend of mine brought the latest James Blunt album over for me to listen to. As they'd bought it on iTunes, it arrived on an unlabelled burned CD. My music system doesn't play CD's so I had to rip it to mp3 in order to play it. This effectively gave me a digital copy of the music, I no longer need the CD.

So, the album is fantastic; probably in my all time Top 10 and I want to show my appreciation to James Blunt by buying it. So my options.

1) Go to my local music outlet and pay a silly price for a CD in a case, take it home and throw it in a box in my garage?

2) Buy CD online cheaper, then throw it in a box in my garage.

3) Buy on iTunes then deleted the download as I've already got it in unprotected MP3 format.

4) Don't buy it.

With the first option I'll be paying about £12.99, option 2 £9.99 and optiion 3. £7.99. I guess the pricing reflects the overheads of each method of sale to some extent. But I already have the product in my posession. I don't want to pay any carriage charges. I don't want to pay for shop assistants or download bandwidth. I just want to legally own what I already have.

So I've come up with a solution...

The BPI/RIAA etc. should open up a music licensing site. On there you go on and simply license any music in your posession. A charge will me made for each license that excludes media, download fees etc. just a raw cost for getting legal which goes to the copyright holder. So I would simply go to the site, tell it I've got James Blunt's album and pay my £3 or whatever it costs. So if I want to copy an album off a mate, or download it from the net or whatever; I have a listen and then if I like it I pay my £3. If I don't, I delete it...job done.

The music industry can't stop piracy whatever they do but, with my proposed model, they simply say "if you haven't got a license you need to buy one". To avoid any "i was going to buy it" claims they simply say you're allowed to have up to 3 unlicensed albums in your collection or something. As a side-effect, counterfeit albums will also be rendered worthless as buying them would not give you a valid license to own. Existing legal shops could automatically license music to your account during purchase using a card similar to a Supermarket loyalty system. This could also all link to produce the music charts.

Taking the proposal a little further, after 50yrs or so, the copyright on the music is going to expire; so no licensing would be required. Music over this age should simply be available to freely copy or perhaps a donation to a charity instead. That's the theory behind who's intention is to market copyright-expired music online with all proceeds going to charity. Until then...can I just activate a license for my music please? I don't think I'm legal on the current system even if I do buy the disc!

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