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Berman aims for royalties, with discounts

In a news release today (download here), Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) said he plans to introduce a bill in October requiring local radio stations to pay expanded royalties for the music they play. Over-the-air stations have paid royalties only to songwriters and music publishers, who hold copyrights in the compositions, and not to artists and labels, who hold copyrights in the recordings.

The measure is sure to trigger a fierce lobbying battle, with both the National Assn. of Broadcasters and a coalition of artists and labels already firing salvos in Washington. Today, Berman sought to lower the heat a bit. His release promised "significant" discounts "and other accommodations" for small and religious broadcasters. "Under the legislation that we are crafting, a large majority of all radio stations will receive special accommodations," Berman said. Of course, judging from SoundExchange's stance on webcasting royalties, the music industry's definition of a significant discount isn't likely to be the same as the broadcasters'. 

Purdue's connected football field

Purdue_estadium Remember how people used to say the Internet changes everything? Then the catch-phrase became broadband changes everything? Each was true (and still is), but I think the more salient point now is that WiFi and, soon, WiMax push change everywhere. Here's an example. Purdue University has a service called eStadium, which offers instant replays and other content to fans inside Ross-Ade Stadium. The university outfitted  Ross-Ade with WiFi access points several years ago, but only the fans who brought wireless-equipped PDAs and laptops could log on (don't laugh; Purdue churns out lots of engineers). This year, it started making the replays available in formats that worked on Internet-enabled cell phones, too. According to the university's news release, the new support for cell phones could increase the audience for eStadium's videos by an order of magnitude, from a few hundred fans to several thousand.

As the university has gained experience with eStadium, it has expanded what people can do with it. Real-time statistics. Player information. Scores from other games. A food locater. New features this year include letting fans see replays from multiple camera angles, vote for the game's MVP and submit questions to Purdue's football coach for him to answer on his postgame show. One can only imagine what sort of interactivity might come next, as Purdue pushes the boundaries of what fans can do in the bleachers -- letting them decide whether to go for it on fourth down? Hmmm.... Anyway, the replay system is getting a good workout this year -- the Boilermakers are undefeated and well-nigh unstoppable on offense, having scored at least 45 points in each of its first four games. This Saturday a fifth victory is all but assured, thanks to a visit by hapless Notre Dame. Reality won't set in until Week 6, when mighty Ohio State comes to West Lafayette. (Full disclosure: I grew up in Columbus during the Woody Hayes era, so I'm not objective in these matters.)

Photo by David Umberger of the Purdue News Service

Art Tatum live, kinda sorta

Art_tatum I've been to some memorable concerts in my day -- U2 in a tiny Asbury Park club in May 1981, a ticked-off Elvis Costello at Princeton's Dillon Gym in April 1979 (he turned off the stage-right speakers because kids on that side of the gym weren't standing), the Fall at the Black Cat in Washington in Sept. 1993 (an unsteady Mark Smith careened off stage after two songs, never to return) -- but I don't think I've ever seen anything as odd as watching jazz piano legend Art Tatum play two days ago at the Shrine Auditorium.

Continue reading Art Tatum live, kinda sorta »

Content recognition, part 2

Movielabs_logo As I mentioned in my last post, the MPAA and MovieLabs' tests of 12 content-recognition technologies found several that performed quite well in the lab. According to information released at a joint MPAA-University of California event last week, seven of the technologies correctly identified at least 80% of the test files, and three got better than 90% right with no false positives. But several speakers at the event predicted that the technologies would prove much more useful for distributing content than for blocking it.

Continue reading Content recognition, part 2 »

The content-recognition bakeoff

Movielabs_logo There was one obvious winner in the MPAA's test of content-recognition technologies, and that would be Hollywood. The association disclosed a brief summary of the results at a conference on online entertainment held Thursday in cooperation with the University of California. Paradoxically, though, the results might prove to be a boon for user-generated content sites and the people who love them.

Continue reading The content-recognition bakeoff »

Online media round-up

A bunch of little items:
Slacker_image_2 You may have been wondering, as I have, what happened to Slacker's intriguing portable player -- the one that enabled people to hear Slacker's personalized online radio stations for free (albeit with commercials) when they're not glued to their PCs. Here's a clue: today the company announced licenses with Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, EMI and numerous indie labels allowing users to download DRM-protected tracks to Slacker's portables. It previously announced a deal with Sony BMG, so now it finally has the full set of major-label blessings. Can Slacker's Wi-Fi equipped hardware be far behind? The company is saying it'll be out soon, well in advance of the holidays.

Continue reading Online media round-up »

Trent Reznor on CD prices

Ninyear_zero_album_cover I don't know what his contract with Universal's Interscope Records provides, but I suspect that Trent Reznor doesn't hold the copyrights to his band's latest album (Year Zero by Nine Inch Nails). So I'd be surprised if he could legally authorize fans to "steal it," as he instructed attendees at a recent concert in Sydney, Australia. But he does have a certain moral authority on the subject. It is his work, after all. And he has a legitimate beef about the price of CDs Down Under. HMV sells Year Zero for a stunning AU $32.99, which converts to about  $28 here. You can blame the lousy exchange rate for part of the sticker shock, but not all of it.

Continue reading Trent Reznor on CD prices »

Trapping file-sharers?

Mediadefender_logo The spy-vs-spy world of p2p networks took a revealing turn this weekend -- literally. A person or group called MediaDefender-Defenders unleashed onto BitTorrent a huge cache of e-mails -- internal ones, evidently -- ostensibly written by executives and employees at MediaDefender, one of the leading vendors of anti-piracy services. I can't speak for the authenticity of the e-mails, which I haven't yet read, or the accuracy of the reporting on them. I'm just noting the controversy they've flamed, or, more accurately, re-ignited.

The messages, if they are authentic, include many details about what MediaDefender does and how it does it. The bulk of this information isn't surprising; MediaDefender made no secret of the fact that it monitors p2p networks and tries to dupe users into downloading spoofs instead of the real thing. The practice has been around for years, and it contributed to the exodus of users from Kazaa -- a very easy network to spoof effectively. Rather, what has p2p advocates worked up now is new revelations about MediaDefender's sub rosa work on video trading site called MiiVi. The TorrentFreak news site reported in July that MiiVi wasn't the typical BitTorrent-powered enterprise, but rather a copyright-enforcement ploy launched by MediaDefender. Randy Saaf, MediaDefender's CEO, insisted back then that MiiVi was merely an internal research project, but some say the newly release e-mails show otherwise.

It's worth noting that TorrentSpy TorrentFreak, in a later post this weekend about the e-mails, said things probably were less nefarious than they originally seemed:

Interestingly, no evidence can be found that MediaDefender is actually involved in prosecuting or gathering evidence against filesharers (as we reported earlier). Their core business is releasing fake files and polluting the filesharing networks.

Umm, that's tantamount to saying "There's no fire" after you've cleared the theater. Still, the whole episode is more than just another black eye for the copyright-enforcement community. The e-mail trove reportedly includes payroll data, revealing MediaDefender employees' Social Security numbers and home addresses. That's an ID theft nightmare in the making. I imagine that in the eye-for-an-eye culture of file-sharing, MediaDefender-Defenders feels this is merely rough justice. But it strikes me as the sort of imprecise, over-the-top response that has come to characterize the true believers on both sides of the battle over online piracy.

Although MediaDefender isn't a computer security company in the traditional sense (in other words, its mission isn't to guard firms against hackers), there's still some irony here. As Eric Garland, CEO of BigChampagne, observed, MediaDefender's business is combating unauthorized access to entertainment -- the sort of thing that was designed to be seen by as many people as possible. Internal e-mails and personal financial information, on the other hand, were meant to be seen by as few people as necessary. "If MediaDefender can't even keep the wide world from freely accessing their employees' salary and bonus info, what of their day jobs?" Garland asked. Good question.

Online TV: free vs. pay

Firstsciencetv_logo_2I'm a big fan of advertiser-supported content online, but I heard something today that made me think twice about the viability of that business model for long-tail or niche-y material. I'm at the IBC 2007 conference, which is Europe's annual blowout on broadcasting and new media issues. At a panel today on broadband rollouts, Gideon Summerfield, managing director of Pioneer Online, talked about FirstScience.tv -- an online video-on-demand service specializing in science programs that have been locked in broadcasters' vaults. This is typical long-tail material -- it has limited appeal but avid fans, and little of it is available in any other format. The goal isn't to attract a TV-sized audience, Summerfield said, but "thousands and tens of thousands" of viewers. "As long as we have a big enough inventory, we can make a good business out of that."

By that he meant a good rental and sell-through business, not one based on advertising. The reality, he said, is that selling ads based on so few viewers won't generate enough money to sustain the business. Babelgum might make $250 by coaxing 5,000 people to watch a free video with advertising, Summerfield said, but FirstScience.tv can make 20 times as much by charging viewers $2-$3 to rent and $1 extra dollar to buy. Besides, he said, there's a growing supply of free, advertiser-supported video sites online, and that situation isn't sustainable.

Not that everything's peachy in the video-on-demand business online. Like other speakers, Summerfield said it's not easy enough for people to view and pay for online videos. He lamented the lack of an easy connector between PCs and the TV, and the incompatibilities caused by rival DRMs. And although peer-to-peer technologies are critical to solving the Net's capacity problems, Summerfield said users complain about the effect on their PCs' performance and Internet speeds. "I just think we're going to have to see radical development of the technology," he said.

The FirstScience.tv site draws about half a million unique users each month, according to Summerfield. About 60% of them come from the U.S., which accounts for about 75% of the sales -- an imbalance that reflects how much more experienced U.S. Web users are when it comes to paying for content online.

iPod goes wireless

I haven't played with the iPod Touch yet, but I think it's a safe bet that Apple has done another fine upgrade, giving people yet more reasons to buy an iPod. What it hasn't done, unlike some other Wi-Fi enabled players, is change the game for music fans.

Enabling people to buy 99 cent tracks wherever they have a Wi-Fi connection will probably lead to more impulse purchases. Whether that translates into more sales overall, though, depends on whether consumers compensate for their Wi-Fi purchases by buying less when they're at their computers or the local CD shop. Personally, I don't think music sales have tanked over the past six years because it was too hard to buy music, or because people weren't able to buy when their urge was strongest.

For Wi-Fi to be a real game-changer, users would have to be able to load their players with songs they don't pay extra for -- in other words, it would require a subscription model. That's what the Sansa Connect does with Yahoo's subscription-music service. Ideally, users could quickly add tracks to their players when they're at a club, a cafe or any place else with a soundtrack. Microsoft's version of this -- enabling people with Zunes to download temporary copies of tracks from other people with Zunes nearby -- is hampered by the scarcity of people with Zunes. Plus, having a track go dead after three plays is a lousy user experience.

I know, Steve Jobs is no fan of subscriptions. And he's hardly alone. They make a lot of sense for people with big musical appetites and broad tastes, not so much for those with small appetites or a willingness to download tracks without paying for them. But Wi-Fi without access to an unlimited library of tracks just doesn't seem like much fun to me. 



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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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