Music Industry Changes Tune of New Program to Fight File Sharing

Caroline "Puck" Deutermann for FMC

Jim Griffin (left), of the Warner Music Group, is working on the music-downloading experiment. The goal, he says, is to persuade students to do the right thing and pay for the content.
November 03, 2009

Under a blanket of secrecy, six colleges have begun testing an experimental service from major recording labels that lets students legally download all the music they want and put it on any device. But some innovative features have been stripped from the service since it was proposed, leaving it similar to existing services that have not made much of a dent in illicit file-sharing.

The experimental service, led by Warner Music Group, is called Choruss. It has no informational Web site, no brochure, and almost nothing in writing to describe it, even though it is slated to be up and running for students on the six campuses in January. The participating colleges have asked not to be identified, in part because the music industry's efforts have been criticized in the past and the issue is a political land mine for campus officials.

The only source of public information about Choruss is Jim Griffin, the Warner Music adviser leading the effort. In an interview with The Chronicle, he said the model for the proj ect has changed since his first discussions with college leaders, more than a year ago.

On the basis of those initial talks, the colleges would pay the music industry a blanket licensing fee, similar to what radio stations pay to air popular songs. There was also discussion of the record labels' signing a "covenant not to sue" for any illegal downloading of their songs by users on participating campuses, he said.

Some popular blogs about technology quickly criticized that scheme after Mr. Griffin began pitching it to college leaders. TechDirt called Choruss a music tax for students, and other observers noted that it might not fully shield colleges and students from legal action if the downloaded songs were by artists not participating in the program.

Mr. Griffin said the bloggers and other critics were basing their complaints on misinformation. However, it seems that the most unusual aspects of the initial plan have been jettisoned since those early talks.

For instance, when asked about the "covenant not to sue," Mr. Griffin said, "We'd initially considered the idea but have now decided to use a traditional license approach."

Another substantial change from the early days of the proj ect is that the licenses now would be with individual students rather than with colleges—although on some campuses, student governments or other groups may agree to pay the fee on behalf of students.

As Mr. Griffin described the current plan, it sounded much like previous efforts to sell digital music to students. Account holders would log into a Web site, enter a user name and password, and be granted access to a catalog of millions of songs from major and independent labels. "They can then access a large pool of songs for a flat fee," he said.

Each of the six campuses will test a different price to see which attracts the most usage. "The most exciting question for me is what terms and conditions and price points will optimize the revenue to the rights holder," Mr. Griffin said. That is key to making sure artists get compensated for their creative work, he said.

Lifetime Download Privileges

The most unusual feature of Choruss is that users would be able to download any song in the collection to their own computers, with no restrictions. Unlike Apple's iTunes, which charges about a dollar per song for unrestricted downloads, this would be an all-you-can-grab song buffet. Want to make CD's? Sure. Put thousands of songs on your iPod? No problem. Even after students stop paying the Choruss subscription fee, they will be able to keep all the songs they have downloaded. "They get to keep them the rest of their lives," as Mr. Griffin put it. That differs from some subscription music services, which allow access only while users are active members of the service.

What's to stop students from paying for one month and downloading the whole collection? "Nothing," said Mr. Griffin.

The basic premise, he said, is that it is so easy to download music from unauthorized Web sites that some model has to be developed to persuade users to do the right thing and pay for the content instead. "If you find a way to make it faster, easier, and simpler to pay, we think people will pay," he said. "Our gut tell us that the right model is flat fee, unlimited use."

Many campus-technology leaders wonder just who the secret beta testers are. Cornell University officials have denied a report that they are involved, as have officials at Pennsylvania State University, Illinois State University, and the University of Chicago.

Why the secrecy? A college official familiar with the discussions, who asked not to be named, said colleges just don't want to be attacked by critics of the music industry, especially since they may choose not to participate after the initial experimentation phase. "They've been burned before by premature discussion about this and other proj ects," said the official. "So, up until the point at which they have their own message nailed down, there's no upside to discussing it and plenty of potential downside."

More details apparently will be made public this spring, when students on the test-bed campuses will be asked to pay a monthly fee to try it out.

Already, however, other companies are queuing up competitors that promise more-radical reform.

Noank Media, a company based on a Harvard University research proposal, is working on a blanket-license program that would charge colleges and other institutions a flat fee. Users would install software that would count every time they played a song, for the purpose of distributing royalties to the musicians.

"We're not going to stop file sharing—it's probably going to happen in one form or another, and it's probably folly to try and stop it," said Charlie Moore, a Noank official who has traveled to campuses in the past few months to drum up interest. "If we're able to use consumption data to compensate the rights holders of a particular recording, then we think we've got a handle on a fair and equitable model for rights going forward."

The company is still negotiating with the music industry, and if all goes well, it could have a product ready for use by next fall, said Mr. Moore. (It has run a test of the technology with a small Internet-service provider in China.)

When asked about Noank, Mr. Griffin indicated that the music industry is not opposed to the many experiments going on with digital music. "Any school or company would be smart to work with them," he said. "And we at Choruss are happy to work with them where that makes sense."