Google announced today that it will join Amazon in offering consumers a cloud-based music locker service. Google’s news, which had been rumored for some time, presents an opportunity to both answer and ask some questions about the future of the music industry.
Those questions make clear that while services like these do improve the ability for fans to access their music, they still only get us a little bit closer to the larger goal: making sure artists get paid and fans are happy.
Do music locker services violate current copyright laws?
Unlike streaming services, such as Rhapsody or Mog, Google’s and Amazon’s music lockers allow users to upload their own music files and then access those files from either the Internet or devices equipped to run those companies’ programs (in Google’s case, that means a phone running the Android operating system).
For this kind of personal locker, Amazon and Google believe they don’t need licenses from record labels that own copyrights in the songs – and we agree. Essentially, all these services do is allow you to upload a song you already own and access that file from different browsers and devices, not much different from transferring a song you bought to your iPod.
Apparently to avoid any potential copyright liability, neither Amazon nor Google “de-duplicate” users’ files, which means that users access the same files they themselves uploaded, even when those files are identical to others on the system. As a result, millions of identical files may exist in the same cloud.
Whether or not Amazon’s and Google’s copyright fears are well founded is still an open question and may depend, at least in part, on the ongoing litigation between EMI and MP3Tunes. MP3Tunes is a music locker, but – unlike Amazon and Google – it does de-duplicate its files and it provides a search engine on the side allowing users to search for more music. EMI claims that MP3Tunes should be held responsible for infringing content stored in the lockers of some of its users, while MP3Tunes contends that it is immune from liability under the "safe harbor" provisions in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).
While we wait for a ruling in the MP3Tunes case, it appears that Amazon and Google have chosen to play it safe by storing potentially millions of identical files (just another example of how copyright laws fail to address modern uses of copyrighted works).
Are music locker services the answer to an ailing recording industry?
Personal music locker services are certainly an improvement on current industry services. By allowing music fans increased access to the content they already own, services like Amazon’s and Google’s improve consumers’ music experiences by making it easier to listen to that music where and whenever they want.
But we’re a long way from realizing the potential of cloud-based music services, which could increase consumers’ access to music they already own while offering new ways to find and purchase music and other add-on content from artists.
It has been widely reported that Google attempted to secure licensing deals that would have allowed it to offer more to consumers – for example, the ability to access music one owns without having to take the time to upload it to the cloud (which can be a slow process). But it seems the record labels are still blocking efforts to give music fans with more or easier access to new music, whether by compulsory licenses or other non-traditional revenue streams. Not only does less access hurt fans, but it hurts artists who might otherwise benefit from innovative business models. So while we applaud Amazon’s and Google’s attempt to better their customers’ music experience, there’s no question that their services fall far short of what fans and artists really need and want.