Copyright Licenses in the Cloud

In this post, I will focus on the licensing issues in the new cloud based services provided by Google and Amazon.

As always, I write with the hope that the Indian labels will eventually recognise the onset of the digital age in music and by understanding the issues as and when they come up internationally, they will be in a better position to provide a seamless service to its users when they finally decide to set up such services in India.

What is the cloud based music service?
Both Google and Amazon recently announced their own ‘digital locker services‘. It allows users to manage and play their own music using the internet, which is the essence of cloud-based services.

Essentially, both companies’ services allow users to upload their personal music libraries to a private storage locker. Once uploaded, these files will be made available to be streamed from any internet-ready device, such as a smartphone or laptop. The end purpose for Amazon at least, is understandably to boost sales of music tracks from its digital library, so it makes sense to see that Amazon grants 20GB of storage for the year, along with automatic syncing without affecting the storage quota, if tracks are purchased from the Amazon online store. This constitutes the ‘storage’ component of the service. The second functionality of ‘playing’ music is this: users could then use the Amazon Cloud Player application to stream the uploaded music to any device. Thus, you can play a song on your mobile phone, even if you have not synced the song locally to that device previously. Does this fact, in itself, require additional licenses from the labels? That is the big question.

Do the services require copyright licenses to operate?
To explain this aspect, let me briefly go over the the digital music copyright licensing system. The various music labels offer to license the songs they own to Amazon for a particular fee. Since copyright holders enjoy certain exclusive rights, outlining the specific rights that are licensed is an important part of the initial contracts. The labels would then argue that since the functionality contemplated under the new service was not a part of the original licensing agreement, new licenses would have to be acquired. However, some of the reasons advanced by the labels requiring additional licenses to be acquired are plain ridiculous.

What are the concerns of the music labels?
The demand for music licenses are on the face of it unwarranted and unreasonable. It would appear to most people that acquiring additional licenses are not required since the songs being uploaded are those a user already has. The question of additional rights required to merely upload the tracks and play them from another device seems moot. Quite simply, device-shifting should be permissible. However, some of the arguments advanced by the labels are simply untenable:

  1. The labels argue, as always, that such services will allow unauthorised tracks to be uploaded and replayed. While I’ve never understood the presumption that tracks have not legally purchased, this proves to be a serious concern for users who buy CD’s, copy the tracks to a computer and then try uploading the same tracks. Although legally purchased, such tracks cannot be uploaded since they don’t have ‘unique digital receipts’ (no valid proof of purchase).
  2. Their other concern is that users will sync and stream songs from each others’ digital lockers. The labels are demanding that each user designate a certain device from which they will be allowed to upload songs. Practical problems aside, we have seen the failure of such a restriction in the debates on Digital Rights Management.
  3. The labels argue that users can make multiple accounts for storage and sell accounts to other users. This seems improbable and again assumes that users want to violate the basic terms and services of a website, disregarding the value that comes with such a service

Arguments for not requiring additional licenses
On the other hand, the arguments for launching the service without acquiring any additional licenses are much stronger.

Cloud storage v. Local Storage
Is there really a difference between uploading a song to Gmail, Google Docs or even other digital storage services like DropBox and doing the same with Amazon’s Cloud Service or Google Music. I can draw a very simple analogy of using a hard drive to back up songs, which would be perfectly legal. This also ties in as a defence against the argument that the labels are making that people would go over to each other’s houses and sync/stream their songs for free. Surely it would be easier to carry a hard drive to your friends house and copy all the music locally than to rely on our untrustworthy Indian broadband speeds.

No encouragement to pirate
The terms and services of the service make it clear that the service does not encourage or promote piracy. In fact, Google has put on hold its plans to sell music online and Amazon’s terms are also clear in this respect. Further, the fear that users will upload unauthorised content, should in no way allow labels to stop such services from coming into existence.

This entire episode is another example of a case wherein the music labels are hesitant to adapt to the digital era of music, allow innovation and provide value to users. While the present debate seems set to continue for a while, the labels’ case will hinge upon demonstrating either that even if you have the clearance to sell legal copies of music to consumers, allowing them to store their music on your service for future access and stream the music that they own is illegal – a hard case to prove, in my opinion at least.

Let’s hope that the Indian music labels are a little more receptive to innovation in the digital music sales domain and sort out licensing issues ahead of schedule. Because really, I’m tired of labels pushing and pushing for curtailment of users’ right. Where does this stop? Probably with a ‘music enjoyment license‘.


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