December 10, 2008 | By Fred von Lohmann

Labels Open to Collective Licensing on Campus

Finally. The major record labels are coming around to voluntary collective licensing, as we've been urging (and predicting) since 2003. Last week, TechDirt posted a set of leaked slides suggesting that Warner Music Group has opened a discussion with several major U.S. universities about creating a collective licensing solution for on-campus music file sharing. Wired got more details, TechDirt hates it, Ars Technica is cautiously optimistic, and Portfolio urges more transparency.

Here's what we know so far. Apparently Warner Music opened this discussion with universities some months ago. There is no concrete plan yet, but EMI and Sony-BMG are apparently open to the general idea (leaving Universal Music as the hold-out, which is no surprise, given their reputation as the most backward of the major labels). It's not clear whether or to what extent independent labels have been involved. And the project has a name—Choruss. The chief negotiator for Warner appears to be Jim Griffin, who is a long-time advocate of collective licensing (and member of EFF's advisory board).

Universities would pay Choruss, a new nonprofit collecting society, in exchange for an end to the "John Doe" subpoenas seeking student identities, DMCA notices, lawsuits against students, and legislation mandating copyright surveillance of campus networks. Students who pay will be free to download whatever they like, using whatever software they like, in whatever format they like (and presumably keep it all when they graduate, since there would be no way to claw back DRM-free MP3s). The monies collected would be divided up among artists and rightsholders, based on relative popularity. The rest of the details are still to be determined, including whether it would be a mandatory fee for all students, or an opt-in fee (complete with continued lawsuits for those who fail to pay?). It's also not clear what the fee would be, although those familiar with the talks suggest less than $5 per student per month.

EFF has been pushing for a voluntary collective licensing solution for P2P music file sharing for over five years. And we've noted as well that this approach makes much more sense for universities than the current "sue - surveil - expel" approach urged by the recording industry. So the news that Warner Music has begun discussing this approach is music to our ears.

We have written extensively (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) on why we think this kind of collective licensing approach makes sense. This could be the beginning of a big win for everyone. Fans come in from the copyright cold; artists and rightsholders get paid; the music industry stops the litigation war machine. And it will unleash a new tide of innovative start-ups (who no longer need licenses) to help us find, manage, and get the most from our unlimited libraries of music.

It's not just the music industry and music fans who will be better off. Everyone who cares about creativity and innovation should be eager for a truce between the RIAA and the Internet. The 10 year trench war between the the major record labels and digital technology continues to jeopardize the free and open Internet. In addition to suing more than 30,000 people (including innocents caught in the net) and distorting copyright law in their efforts to kill off P2P software makers, the industry continues to push for ubiquitous network-based copyright surveillance, an idea that already has traction with AT&T and policy-makers in several European countries. Across the world, the push is on now for "3 strikes" policies that will cut people off from the Internet on the basis of unproven infringement allegations. A collective licensing solution could seriously undercut the principal arguments for these policies.

So we are cautiously optimistic. There are lots of hard issues that will need to be addressed. How will a collective licensing approach protect user privacy? What will universities do to stop "leakage" to ISPs whose users have not opted in? Will independent artists get a fair shake from Choruss? But it sounds like the labels are, for the first time, interested in having the right discussion.


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