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For Ezmo -- with love and squalor

Ezmo_logo Add Ezmo to the list of sites claiming to offer a legal way to share music. The service, based in Norway, is an online music locker similar to Lala.com, minus the (questionable) business model. In fact, there's no apparent business model at all, at least not yet. And unless Ezmo followed Lala's lead on the licensing front, its creators may soon find themselves spending their start-up cash on attorney fees.

The site's FAQ flatly declares that it is legal, but there are some elements of the service that make me wonder. The locker portion seems straightforward enough: Ezmo enables users to use its servers to store an unlimited amount of music, which they can play through a Web browser. It has a nice drag-and-drop playlist feature, too, so you're not stuck with the ones you've created on your home PC.

Where things dicey, though, is when you start sharing tracks. Ezmo allows you to invite up to 10 friends, who can then play your songs on demand. There do not appear to be any limits on the playback, which would suggest that Ezmo requires licenses from the labels and music publishers for on-demand streaming. The copyright holders demand about a penny per play for such rights, which adds up to real money as the user base grows. Some companies, such as Social.FM (formerly Mercora), have avoided the licensing requirement by letting users tap into webcasts generated from each user's collection. Those webcasts comply with the playlist limits imposed by the DMCA, which preclude more than a couple songs being played from any artist or CD within a three hour period. Even those efforts, though, require the payment of royalties. And the fact that Ezmo isn't running ads on its site or charging people to use its service strongly suggests that it's not paying royalties of any kind.

I haven't heard back from Ezmo yet, so I don't know what basis it has for being on the right side of the law. I'm guessing from its blog that the company will make a fair use argument. ("Ezmo’s limit of ten friends is a number we have set to prevent misuse, and to help us ensure the legality of the service," it states at one point.) I've long been intrigued by the idea that someone might test the limits of fair use that way -- if the sharing is non-commercial and confined to a small group of pals, it has less of an effect on the market for music. This kind of sharing seems much more promotional than the kind practiced on p2p networks, where it is far easier to amass tracks and search for specific tunes. Ezmo is better suited to browsing lazily through stuff you've not heard before than to filling your iPod.

Still, lawyers for the music industry would likely argue that any sharing beyond the immediate family is outside the bounds of fair use. It's worth noting that Lala felt compelled to obtain licenses from the labels for a similar kind of on-demand streaming (albeit not limited to one's closest friends). All the same, Ezmo has some interesting wrinkles (e.g., melding your songs and your friends' uploads into unified playlists), which makes me hope it has either licenses or a persuasive defense.

BTW, there doesn't appear to be love or squalor at Ezmo's site. The company's name just made me think of a story I like.


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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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