Fool Me Twice: How Spotify Could Become the New iTunes Store

Back in 2003, as the music industry was reeling from widespread, Napster-fueled piracy, Apple CEO Steve Jobs made the record labels an offer they couldn’t resist: Give me a license to sell individual tracks but let me sell them cheap enough to be a viable alternative to free, and I’ll wrap them in DRM for you in a way that consumers will accept, so they can’t be copied.

The labels leapt at the deal and the $1.00 download became the new atomic unit of the business.

Though thrilled at first to have an answer to piracy the record companies eventually came to rue the arrangement once they figured out that Apple was using those inexpensive downloads to supercharge the market for its high-margin iPods and later iPhone hardware, and was reaping far more of the value being created by their music than they were. By then, however, they had become captive to Apple’s ecosystem: Thanks to Apple’s proprietary DRM, the only way to sell music to iPod users — at the time the largest segment of the portable music-player install base — was through iTunes, under terms effectively dictated by Apple. Read More »

A World Of Difference: Copyright in TPP and the EU

The full and final text of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement was officially released today, giving the public and Congress their first look at the long-gestating and controversial trade deal. And it’s clear from the chapters on intellectual property and investment that content creators and copyright owners got more or less everything they were seeking from the deal.

The treaty, which Congress will now have 90 days to vote up or down but cannot change, would require countries to ban the circumvention of EU headquarterstechnical protection measures (i.e. DRM) and, like the the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in the U.S., to sever liability for circumvention from any actual infringement of copyright. In other words, circumvention is verboten whether or not it results in an infringement under a participating country’s national copyright law.

The text does allow countries to pass exceptions to the ban on circumvention for non-infringing uses, as the DMCA permits through a triennial rulemaking by the Library of Congress, but it does not make those exceptions mandatory. The text also avoids any reference to a U.S.-style fair use principal while extending the term of copyright in all TPP countries to the U.S. standard of the life of the author plus 70 years. Read More »

The Studios Look For An Island In The Set-Top Storm

The Motion Picture Association of America really, really doesn’t want the FCC to tear up the set-top box. So much so that its filing with the commission last week regarding the final report of the Downloadable Security Technical Advisory Committee (DSTAC) contained a thinly veiled threat of litigation should the FCC mandate disaggregation of pay-TV services into parts that can be reassembled at will, and on constitutional grounds no less.

“Mandating such a regime…could violate content owners’: 1) contracts with distributors regarding how their content may be presented, monetized, and accessed; 2)

Wallpaper: Sunrise of the Sea

exclusive rights under section 106 of the Copyright Act to determine how their content is copied, distributed, and publicly performed; 3) First Amendment right against compelled speech; and 4) Fifth Amendment right against taking of property without due compensation,” the MPAA warned. “If third-parties wish to offer a subset of content, services, features, and functions rather than all the choices distributors offer customers in the way that they offer them, the appropriate course is through individualized negotiation, not regulatory fiat.”

What has the Hollywood trade group so exercised is a proposal by one faction within DSTAC, included in the final report, to require cable and satellite providers to unbundle their video feeds from other elements of their services, including the user interface, interactive features and billing, so those feeds can be incorporated into the UI of a third-party device and integrated with other video services. Only then, proponents of unbundling argue, can consumer electronics makers create devices that can compete fully with or replace set-top boxes provided by pay-TV operators. Read More »

For 'Avatar,' three-strikes means a quick out

From the be careful what you wish for file: Twentieth Century-Fox’s Avatar, which is rapidly approaching the top spot among all-time global box-office grosses, and would likely be the biggest selling Blu-ray title to date when released at Christmas time, will actually be released on June 1st, at least in most of the world. Amazon France is already taking pre-orders, for 28.99 euros.

Why not wait until the most propitious time of year to release such a monster title in order to maximize sales? Because it would be against the law in France to wait beyond June 1. And if you release it in France, under EU rules, you’ve effectively released it throughout the EU. And if you release it in the EU, you’ve effectively released it throughout Blu-ray’s Region B, which includes Africa and the Middle East as well as Australia and New Zealand, where they speak a version of English. And if you’re going to release a movie with an English soundtrack in Region B, you might as well release it in Region A, which includes the United States, because it’s going to end up on the Internet sooner or later, probably sooner.

Welcome to life under France’s new three-strikes regime.   Read More »

RealNetworks' real mistake

One week  after Judge Marilyn Hall Patel decisively threw out its antitrust claims against the studios and DVD CCA in the RealDVD case, RealNetworks appears to be imploding. On Wednesday COO John Giamatteo abruptly left the company, and on Thursday founder Rob Glaser stepped down as CEO (he’ll remain chairman). Although Glaser’s move had apparently been planned for some time, it came sooner than he expected and appears not to have been voluntary.

While it’s possible the timing of the events is just a coincidence I wouldn’t bet on it. Investors cheered the news of the Glaser move, sending the stock soaring 17 percent in its wake (ouch!), presumably in anticipation of a new strategic direction for the company–one not quite as provocative and confrontational with respect to the content owners.

The whole RealDVD saga, in fact, has been a disaster for Real. Not only has it been unable to distribute the product, thanks to a restraining order and temporary injunction by the court, but the litigation with the studios over the DVD copying software has produced an unending series of legal setbacks for Real, of which last week’s ruling is merely the latest. Read More »

Selectable outputs, or selectable logic?

The long-running battle at the Federal Communications Commission over the MPAA’s petition for a waiver of the rules banning the use of selectable output controls on devices that can receive TV signals is turning into a textbook example of how regulation can distort business decisions. I almost hate to write that sentence because I don’t want to sound like some sort of Cato Institute ideologue with a jones for deregulation. But the SOC debate has become terminally absurd.

And petty. Just before Thanksgiving, the MPAA filed an ex parte brief with the commission in which it called Public Knowledge legal director Harold Feld, in so many words, a liar.

First and foremost, MPAA would like to respond to certain Public Knowledge statements about the waiver request that, quite frankly, constitute blatant untruths. MPAA appreciates that different parties can reach different conclusions about matters of public policy. Indeed, MPAA has welcomed the opportunity to engage with Public Knowledge and its allies in an honest and open debate about the merits of the SOC waiver request. Regrettably, however, Public Knowledge, apparently having determined that its arguments on the merits have failed to gain traction with the Commission, has resorted to outright distortion and falsehoods. In particular, MPAA believes that the Feld Video Blog contains statements that are simply and irrefutably untrue.

 That drew a sharp retort from PK president Gigi Sohn, and a melodramatically “more-in-sorrow-than-anger” reply from Feld in a subsequent video blog post.

fcc-sealFor those joining us late, the MPAA’s petition has been pending before the commission for more than two years, but was victim of a pocket veto by the previous FCC chairman, who refused to put it before the other commissioners for a vote. With the Barack Obama Administration now in charge, however, there is a new FCC lineup and new chairman, and the studios have tried to capitalize on the changes to breathe new life into the old petition.

In very broad strokes, the MPAA argues that its member companies would like to introduce a new high-definition video-on-demand window for movies immediately following the theatrical window and before those movies are released on DVD and Blu-ray. The new window, according to the MPAA, would allow consumers to watch movies on their home theater systems earlier than they can today based on the current sequence of rlease windows, which generally doesn’t make movies available for home viewing until three to six months after their theatrical release when they come out on DVD. But the studios would only do that, the MPAA argues, if they’re allowed to remotely disable any analog outputs on receiving devices by inserting the appropriate “flag” into the VOD signal.

Why? Because analog outputs on HDTV sets and other devices do not support digital copy protection encryption like the High-bandwidth Digital Copy Protection (HDCP) system supported by HDMI and certain DVI connections. The studios fear that permitting their “high-value” content to travel over unprotected outputs would allow users to record the movies and then redistribute them over the Internet.

Public Knowledge and other opponents of the waiver argue that allowing the studios to turn off analog outputs would “break” as many as 25 million devices by preventing them from receiving or displaying the content and and is therefore anti-consumer. (There are also technical arguments over whether the MPAA has met its legal burden of proof to qualify for a waiver and other super-wonky issues that even The Media Wonk won’t delve into here.)

Here’s the problem: Because the debate is occuring in a public-policy context the MPAA is playing what it considers to be its best public-policy card: fear of piracy. We would only be too eager to offer this shiny new benefit to consumers, the studios say, if  we could just do something about the terrible scourge of piracy. But there’s a far more compelling business case for granting the SOC waiver that the studios are not making.

For its part, Public Knowledge is offering counter-arguments that, while they may address  the public-policy questions at issue, are utterly naive as to the business considerations distributors face when releasing a movie.

The studios know perfectly well that turning off the analog outputs for the proposed VOD transmissions will have little effect on the broader piracy problem (or, I should say, some people at the studios know that, some of them really are crazy). The reason they need to do it is to give themselves cover with Wal-Mart and other large DVD retailers who would raise holy hell over a new “unprotected” window ahead of theirs. Of course, they, too, know the piracy argument is a feint. But they would nonetheless use it to squeeze the studios on shelf space and price at a time when the studios can ill-afford to lose more DVD business.

Theater owners would also squawk, of course. But the studios have no doubt calculated that there is nothing the theaters can really do about it. They need Hollywood’s movies far more than Wal-Mart does.

Cable operators, who would benefit from the new window, have predictably come out in favor of granting the waiver. But they, too, would be all too happy to turn around and use “piracy” during the new window to squeeze the studios on licensing fees in the traditional VOD window. It’s business, after all. not a morality play.

And that, ultimately, is the flaw in Public Knowledge’s case against the waiver. To argue, as it has repeatedly, that the fact that a few independent distributors like Magnolia and IFC have released movies on VOD ahead of their theatrical or DVD release proves that piracy is not a real problem, and that the studios could release movies the same way now, is simply a non sequitur. Independent distributors are in a different business from the major studios. They do not have business relationships with Wal-Mart and Best Buy to protect.

family-watching-dvdAs things now stand, routinely releasing movies on VOD ahead of their DVD/Blu-ray release would not be a sound business decision for a studio to make, given all of the considerations that must go into the distribution of movies, and no business person answerable to shareholders is likely to make it. Would the use of SOC change that? It might, but not because it would do anything to prevent piracy. It might because it would give the studios a tool to manage their business relationships through a period of technological and industry transition.

That may not sound very noble (or compelling to regulators), but I don’t find it particularly nefarious, either. Making and distributing movies is a business, and expecting that it would operate on something other than business principles is absurd.

For similar reasons, I don’t find the “breaking 25 million TVs” argument very compelling, either.

Public Knowledge and the Consumer Electronics Association complain that “allowing the MPAA to shut off analog outputs will leave over 20 million TV sets and downstream devices like Slingbox unable to receive the MPAA’s content.” That may be so, but it’s also so that NO TV sets or downstream devices can receive the MPAA’s content in the proposed window as things now stand. And they’re simply not going to start receiving it just because Public Knowledge and CEA think they ought to be able to because it’s not in anyone’s economic interest to let them.

Granted, it may be that the likely consumer benefit of the new window is not a sufficient trade off for changing the rules that have governed TV receivers up to now. But “no one should have it if some people can’t” is not an argument to that point one way or another. In fact, it’s not really an argument at all. It’s an attitude.

And it’s not a sound basis for either business or public policy decisions.

The coming battle over used e-books (Updated)

On Thursday, Google announced during the Frankfurt Book Fair that its long-planned e-commerce platform for digital books will launch by June 2010. Christened Google Editions, represents a major departure from most current e-book offerings in that it won’t be confined to any particular reading device or desktop viewing application. Instead, Google will cache users’ purchases in a “cloud library,” which can be accessed from anywhere using any device with a Web browser

“It will be a browser-based access,” Google Books’  Tom Turvey said.  “The way the e-book market will evolve is by accessing the book from anywhere, from an access point of view and also from a geographical point of view.”

home-bookstoreUsers will be able to search for e-books on Google Editions (and presumably be served ads) and then buy them from Google, directly from the publisher or from one of dozens of partner retailers. Turvey said he expects the majority of Google Editions customers will go to retail partners, not to Google, to make purchases. “We are a wholesaler. A book distributor,” he said.

Given Google’s general bent toward moving content and applications off the desktop (or device) and into the cloud, turning e-books into Web apps is a logical strategy (GigaOm Pro subscribers can read my take on Google’s overall e-book strategy here). But it’s one that represents more than simply competition for Amazon’s Kindle. Google Editions is going to raise a host of new questions about the nature of an e-book.

For instance: How long before Google or one of its partner retailers sets up a used e-book exchange on the platform?

Up to now, used e-books have not really been an issue. Kindle books, for instance, remain locked to device they were acquired on. If you want to give a copy of a Kindle book to a friend, you have to hand over the whole Kindle. Other services let you transfer your e-books to a limited number of devices but unless you had the foresight to register your friend’s computer as an authorized device you’re out of luck. Selling the e-book to a stranger would be even more problematic.

The issue is not limited to e-books, of course. Any piece of DRM-protected content faces the same limitation. And it has long been a source of some controversy. Under the so-called first sale doctrine (Section 109 of the Copyright Act), the owner of a physical book is entitled to do whatever she wants with that particular copy — short of making another copy — including giving it as a gift, loaning it to a friend or re-selling it to a stranger. Ditto a CD, or a DVD. In principle, the same is true of any “lawfully made copy,” including digital copies. As a practical technical matter, however, sending a digital copy to a friend involves making another copy of the file, something the first sale doctrine does not permit.

For years now, we’ve simply lived with the inherent tension between the first sale doctrine and the practical realities of digital reproduction, in part because its main commercial implications were largely limited to business–online resellers like iTunes, Amazon or CinemaNow–which could be manage-ably licensed by content owners. Individual consumers bent on sharing their digital files had plenty of unauthorized file-sharing networks to turn to.

Google Editions works on a very different principle from Kindle or iTunes, however. Instead of transferring a copy of a file at the time of purchase, Google Editions will cache the  copy on a server, which is then accessed remotely. “Giving” a copy to friend, therefore, or even selling it to a stranger, does not need to involve a subsequent file transfer and its concomitant reproduction. All that would need to happen is for the seller’s access to the cached copy be disabled and the buyer’s accessed enabled at the time of the transaction.

I can see the issue arising first within a licensed context such as a “gift exchange.” Some Google Editions retailer will create a system allowing users to purchase e-books as a gift for someone else. The buyer (gift-giver) would be able to use her account to give a friend access to an e-book via the recipient’s account.

Publishers will love the idea at first because it will increase sales of e-books. But at some point, someone will hit on the idea of an independent re-sale exchange. Users who have purchased and finished with an e-book would be able to make it available to other buyers based on the same simultaneous disable/enable mechanism as the gift exchange.

used-bookstorePublishers will like that a lot less because prices on the exchange will be lower than the prices set by publishers for the same title (it wouldn’t work otherwise). Readers will be drawn to lower prices on the exchange because digital files don’t degrade from wear and tear the way physical copies do: “used” copies are just as good and fresh as “new” copies. Sellers will see it as a way to recapture a portion of the original purchase price, having first extracted value from the e-book by reading it.

Publishers, of course, will respond that your original e-book “purchase” was not in fact an actual purchase of a copy; it was the purchase of a license to use the e-book in certain ways and not others. The terms of service you agreed to by clicking “I agree” will preclude any sort of unauthorized re-sale.

We’ll then have a neatly framed question, suitable for litigation: If a transaction walks like a purchase and quacks like a purchase, is it a purchase even if the vendor insists otherwise? It won’t be the first time the issue has come up (see Vernor v. Autodesk, among others). But a case involving e-books is likely to capture the imagination of the public more than cases involving computer software (where most of the previous  litigation has occurred) because of our deep cultural history with trade in used, rare and antiquarian books.

I give it six to 12 after the launch of Google Editions.

Update: Looks like 6-12 months may be too long a timetable. According to the NYTimes, the new Barnes & Noble Nook, “will permit readers to lend their digital books to friends and download books wirelessly.”

More to chew on over breakfast

As I noted in my last post, The Media Wonk will be hosting the first Digital Breakfast DC panel discussion on Oct. 1 on the topic of Technology and IP Enforcement, including the role of the White House IP Enforcement Coordinator, a new position created by the PRO-IP Act last year. Today, President Barack Obama named former head of Intellectual Property and Innovation at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative Victoria Espinel to be the first to fill the new post.

victorial-espinel2The nomination, who must be approved by the Senate, drew praise from both sides of the IP aisle. “Today’s appointment is the welcome culmination of many months of work toward a more streamlined approach to intellectual property enforcement by the federal government,” the Copyright Alliance said in a statement. “This appointment and its locale within the Office of Management and Budget is a strong sign by the Administration that it believes in the importance of creators’ rights and seeing those rights are enforced here and abroad.”

Public Interest group Public Knowledge, which is often at odds with the Copyright Alliance over IP issues, said in a statement, ““We congratulate Victoria Espinel on her nomination to be the Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator. She is well qualified for the position, having served as the assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Intellectual Property and Innovation. We look forward to working with her upon confirmation by the Senate. We believe she will be fair in her approach to intellectual property enforcement issues.”

Discussion the appointment at the breakfast will be panelistsRick Cotton, general counsel of NBC Universal, Prof. Peter Jaszi of Washington College of Law at American University, Jon Baumgarten, partner with Proskauer Rose, Bill Rosenblatt of GiantSteps Media and entertainment attorney Chris Castle, who represents music artists and songwriters.

Those interested in attending can register here.

Join me at the first Digital Breakfast DC on Oct. 1

The Media Wonk will be hosting the first Digital Breakfast DC conference on Oct. 1 in, not surprisingly, Washington, DC. The topic for the panel is Using Tech to Safeguard Content and IP. Panelists include Rick Cotton, general counsel of NBC Universal, Prof. Peter Jaszi of Washington College of Law at American University, Jon Baumgarten, partner with Proskauer Rose, Bill Rosenblatt of GiantSteps Media and the irrepressible Chris Castle an entertainment attorney from LA who is appearing on behalf of Arts + Labs.

digital-breakfastDebating points will include the implications of the FCC’s net neutrality rulemaking for filtering and other online anti-piracy efforts, the French three-strikes law, Veoh’s recent court victory and its implications for UGC and the over/under line on when we’ll see the new White House IP Czar named. All packed into a fast-paced one hour. Plus bagels.

Click here to register today!

The Taking of Section 1201

I managed to catch an uncut version of the original Taking of Pelham One, Two, Three on cable the other night and stayed up to watch it despite having seen it upteen times. It’s still one of the all-time great New York movies, especially for anyone who lived in the city around that time (the less said about the 2009 version the better).

One of my favorite bits of cynically comic dialog comes about half-way through, when Walter Mathau’s transit police lieutenant character reminds Dick O’Neill’s harassed and short-tempered train master that if they don’t get all the track signals cleared soon, as the hostage takers were demanding, they would start killing the passengers on the hijacked subway car.

“Screw the passengers,” O’Neill’s character barks. “What do they expect for their lousy 35 cents–to live forever?”

taking_of_pelham_one_two_three_the_1974_685x385

I couldn’t help thinking of that classic exchange as I was reading through the responses to the Copyright Office’s written questions to participants in its DMCA section 1201 exemption proceeding, particularly those submitted by Steven Metalitz of Mitchell Silberburg and Knupp on behalf of the MPAA, RIAA and other copyright owner groups. Rejecting the Office’s proposed language for an exemption to allow circumvention of DRM used in connection with authentication servers in the event those servers are ever turned off (e.g. Wal-Mart’s music service), Metalitz practically channels O’Neill’s train master: Read More »

Blu-ray managed copy: wait for the Cliff Notes

Believe it or not–and I almost don’t–the Advanced Access Content System License Authority (AACS-LA) began posting the final license agreements for the DRM system used on Blu-ray Discs on its Web site late Friday. Nearly five years in the making, the final agreements include a mandatory management-copy provision, under which most Blu-ray discs must permit copies to be made, albeit under carefully controlled conditions.

acms_logoThe agreements also require that AACS-compliant hardware devices be capable of detecting digital watermarks inserted into movies and other video content to block playback of pirated content (a big win, incidentally, for Verance, whose Cinavia watermark is the specified standard in the agreement). Read More »

Morning read: Microsoft @ E3, BBC/Google, more

Microsoft’s kick-off presser at E3 in LA tops the news this moring. The big takeaway was the rollout of Project Natal for the Xbox 360, which uses a 3D video camera to let people control on-screen game action by moving their bodies, rather than with a Wii-like wand or thumb-busting hand-held controller (see reports here, here and here, and full press release here). In a show of marketing force, Microsoft brought out Steven Spielberg to demonstrate the new controller, followed by a joint appearance by Paul, Ringo, Yoko and George Harrison’s widow to demonstrate the Beatles Rock Band game.

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For a non-gamer like Media Wonk, though, the more interesting news was the amped-up Xbox LIVE. Online network will drop downloading in favor of instant streaming of movies and bump the quality up to 1080p video and 5.1 channel audio. It also integrates Netflix’s streaming service, Web radio serve Last.fm and live and on-demand TV from BSkyB (see here and here). Read More »