Forbes: The Myth of Cord Cutting February 8, 2015Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Business models, Uncategorized, United States, Video.
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In my latest piece in Forbes, I examine the idea of “cord cutting” in light of recent announcements from Viacom, Time Warner, and DISH Network of over-the-top (OTT) streaming video services that enable people in the US to watch pay TV channels without a pay TV subscription. Cord cutting means cancelling one’s subscription to cable or satellite TV and just getting TV programming over the Internet (or broadcast).
My research turned up two findings that were surprising (at least to me) and support a conclusion that cord cutting is mostly a myth. The first finding is that most people are unlikely to save money on programming if they pay for the increasing number of subscription OTT video services at their expected monthly prices. The second is that most American broadband subscribers get their TV and Internet services from the same company, and there isn’t really such a thing as a broadband Internet company that doesn’t also provide TV; therefore “cord cutting” in most cases really means “calling your cable or phone company and changing to a cheaper service plan.” I also conclude that, economically, cord cutting is a wash for everyone involved, particularly if the FCC is unsuccessful in its new attempt to pass meaningful net neutrality regulations.
As always, I eagerly welcome your feedback.
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I’ve just published another piece in Forbes in my series on the emerging market for “high-res” audio, reflecting the recent surge in activity in this space as both the major record labels and consumer electronics companies see opportunity in expanding the market for high-quality digital audio beyond the audiophile niche. This piece is about new codec technologies — an area that hasn’t seen much innovation since a decade ago. As always, your feedback is most welcome.
As a postscript to that piece, it continues to amaze me — in a positive way — that vinyl is making such a comeback. Our favorite indie music store in Western Massachusetts recently got rid of all of its CDs and is now selling vinyl exclusively. Even Barnes & Noble is now selling a small, mostly highbrow selection of vinyl LPs. Most amazing of all? They’re flying off the shelves at an eye-opening $22 apiece. And everyone used to complain about the $16 CD — which didn’t scratch, took up less space, was easier to play, etc., etc.
Flickr’s Wall Art Program Exposes Weaknesses in Licensing Automation December 7, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Images, Rights Licensing, Standards.
Suppose you’re a musician. You put your songs up on SoundCloud to get exposure for them. Later you find out that SoundCloud has started a program for selling your music as high-quality CDs and giving you none of the proceeds. Or suppose you’re a writer who put your serialized novel up on WattPad; then you find out that WattPad has started selling it in a coffee-table-worthy hardcover edition and not sharing revenue with you. The odds are that in either case you would not be thrilled.
Yet those are rough equivalents of what Flickr, the Yahoo-owned photo-sharing site, has been doing with its Flickr Wall Art program. Flickr Wall Art started out, back in October, as a way for users to order professional-quality hangable prints of their own photos, in the same way that a site like Zazzle lets users make t-shirts or coffee mugs with their images on them (or Lulu publishes printed books).
More recently, Flickr expanded the Wall Art program to let users order framed prints of any of tens of millions of images that users uploaded to the site. This has raised the ire of some of the professional photographers who post their images on Flickr for the same reason that musicians post music on SoundCloud and similar sites: to expose their art to the public.
The core issue here is the license terms under which users upload their images to Flickr. Like SoundCloud and WattPad, Flickr offers users the option of selecting a Creative Commons license for their work when they upload it. Many Flickr users do this in order to encourage other users to share their images and thereby increase their exposure — so that, perhaps, some magazine editor or advertising art director will see their work and pay them for it.
The fact that a hosting website might exploit a Creative Commons-licensed work for its own commercial gain doesn’t sit right with many content creators who have operated under two assumptions that, as Flickr has shown, are naive. One is that these big Internet sites just want to get users to contribute content in order to build their audience and that they will make money some other way, such as through premium memberships or advertising. The other is that Creative Commons licenses are some sort of magic bullet that help artists get exposure for their work while preventing unfair commercial exploitation of it.
Let’s get one thing out of the way: as others have pointed out, what Flickr is doing is perfectly legal. It takes advantage of the fact that many users upload photos to the site under Creative Commons licenses that allow others to exploit them commercially — which three out of the six Creative Commons license options do. It seems that many photographers choose one of those licenses when they upload their work and don’t think too much about the consequences.
Flickr does allow users to change their images’ license terms at any time, and more recently it expanded the Wall Art program to enable photographers to get 51% of revenue from their images if they choose licenses that allow commercial use. But currently that option is limited to those few photographers whom Flickr has invited into its commercial licensing program, Flickr Marketplace, which it launched this past July. Flickr Marketplace is intended to be an attractive source of high-quality images for the likes of The New York Times and Reuters, and thus is curated by editors.
Some copyleft folks have circled their wagons around Flickr, maintaining that it shows yet again why content creators should not expect copyright to help them keep control of what happens to their work on the Internet. But that’s a perversion of what’s going on here.
Flickr is — still, after ten years of existence — a major outlet for photos online. As such, Flickr has the means to control, to some extent, what happens to the images posted on its service; and with Flickr Marketplace, it is effectively wresting some control of commercial licensing opportunities away from photographers. Some degree of control over content distribution and use does exist on the Internet, even if copyright law itself doesn’t contribute directly to that control. The controllers are the entities that Jaron Lanier has called “lords of the cloud” — one of which is Yahoo.
This doesn’t mean that Flickr is particularly outrageous or evil — although it’s at least ironic that while these major content hosting services claim to help content creators through exposure and sharing, Flickr is now making money from objects that are not very shareable at all. (In fact, what Flickr is doing is not unusual for a mature technology business facing stiff competition from new upstarts on the low end of the market — Instagram and Snapchat in this case: it is migrating to the premium/professional end of the market, where prices and margins are higher but volume is lower.)
The problem here is the lack of both flexibility and infrastructure for commercial licensing in the Creative Commons ecosystem. Creative Commons is a clever and highly successful way of bringing some degree of badly-needed rationalization and automation to the abstruse world of content licensing. But it gives creators hardly any options for commercial exploitation of their works.
Several years ago, Creative Commons flirted with the idea of extending their licenses to cover terms of commercial use (among other things) by launching a scheme called CC+. A handful of startups emerged that used CC+ to enable commercial licensing of content on blogs and so on — companies that, interestingly enough, came from across the ideological spectrum of copyright. One was Ozmo from the Copyright Clearance Center, which helped with the design of CC+; another, RightsAgent, was started by the then Executive Director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. Yet none of these succeeded, and it didn’t help that the Creative Commons organization’s heart wasn’t really in CC+ in the first place.
But the picture changes — no pun intended — when big content hosting sites start to monetize user-generated content directly instead of merely using it as a draw for advertising and paid online storage. Ideas for automated licensing of online content have been kicking around long before Flickr or CC+ (here’s one example). Licensing automation mechanisms that can be adopted by big Internet services and individual creators alike for consumer-facing business models are needed now more than ever.
Forbes – Going Hi-Fi To Compete With Spotify (And Google And Apple) December 1, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Music, Services.
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My latest piece in Forbes is about the new breed of subscription music services that offer lossless compression, in order to appeal to the audiophile crowd. Two of them recently launched in the U.S. market: Tidal and Deezer Elite. I speculate about whether this development will finally lead to an era where top audio quality has finally caught up to low cost and convenience. As always, I welcome your feedback.
My New Forbes Blog November 17, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Uncategorized.
I’m pleased to announce that I have been invited to join Forbes, a leading American business publication, as one of its Media & Entertainment blog contributors. I will be publishing pieces there that are of broader interest than the ones I publish here about developments in rights technologies, copyright law, and so on. I’ll write short teasers here for the Forbes pieces I publish, so that those of you who are on this blog’s distribution list can be alerted if you aren’t regular Forbes readers.
It’s been an ambition of mine for some time to write articles for a more general tech/media business audience. I’ve done it occasionally in places such as PaidContent, GigaOM, and Slate, but this will enable me to write as frequently as I can think of things to write about — and to take advantage of Forbes’s prodigious reach and state-of-the-art toolset.
My first Forbes piece is an adaptation of a previous article I wrote here about Apple’s attempt to cut the price of on-demand digital music services in half from $10 to $5 per months, and the disruptive implications of that change — if it happens — for the digital music landscape. I hope you enjoy it, and I welcome any feedback you may have.
Why Does Apple Want to Halve the Price of On-Demand Music? October 26, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Business models, Music, Services, United States.
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Apple is asking record labels to agree to a $5/month subscription price for its Beats Music on-demand service, instead of the going rate of $10/month that it and others (Spotify, Rhapsody, etc.) charge in the US market. This development started as rumor a few weeks ago, then rose to specific evidence of record label conversations confirmed by musician and artists’ rights champion David Lowery at the recent Common Ground intellectual property conference at George Mason University near Washington DC. As of this past Friday, the evidence became strong enough for the Wall Street Journal to treat it as fact.
Re/code also reports that despite the major labels’ apparently cool reception to the new pricing, Spotify is already responding by offering a family plan in which additional family members can add their own subscriptions to a $10/month plan for $5/month. (Beats Music has been offering discounted family plans through AT&T wireless accounts for a while.) As Re/code reports, one reason that Apple has given for the change to $5/month is that it has found that its best iTunes customers spend about $60/year on the service. Given that music download revenue has begun to drop rapidly, Apple apparently believes that it can entice iTunes users to an all-you-can-eat subscription service at the same spending level, instead of losing those users to free music services (or illegal downloads). In other words, $5/month subscriptions are being offered to labels as a way to shore up revenues at $60 ARPU (annual revenue per user) from people who actually still pay for music .
This reasoning is clearly designed to appeal to record labels, which are known to be unhappy about the accelerating decline in purchases. But is it Apple’s real motivation for halving the price of on-demand subscriptions? I don’t think so.
The first thing to understand about on-demand music services is that despite all the talk about monthly subscription fees, the vast majority of users do not pay for them. Research from Edison Research and Triton Digital has determined that the use of YouTube as a de facto on-demand music streaming service draws a US audience of four times all other on-demand services combined – including Spotify (paid and free). Put another way, only about 8% of US users of on-demand music services actually pay for them. Spotify’s percentage of paying US users has stabilized at 25% — which I am proud to say that readers of this blog predicted three years ago — while Google Play, Rhapsody, Rdio, and Beats Music do not offer free tiers for on-demand music.
On-demand music use is growing rapidly, but Apple only has a tiny piece of the market. Beats Music has merely a few hundred thousand users, compared to the estimated 60 million who use YouTube as an on-demand music service and Spotify’s 12 million total US users. Even when one counts only paying users, Beats Music still accounts for well below 10% of the market.
Apple clearly must do something dramatic to become a serious contender. Integrating Beats Music into iTunes (and thereby marketing it heavily to the enormous iTunes audience) by itself isn’t going to expand the market enough to be meaningful to Apple. And even if Apple thinks it can increase the paying user base disproportionately by halving the price, that’s not much of an increase in audience size — especially since the vast majority of the on-demand audience already gets it for free.
No, my view is that Apple’s primary purpose in halving the price is to throw the on-demand market into disarray. Services like Spotify and Rhapsody have been operating their businesses based on the expectation of $10/month revenue for years. Obviously, if Apple comes out with a rebranded Beats Music (iTunes On Demand, iTunes Beats, iTunes Unlimited, iTunes Jukebox, or whatever they end up calling it) at $5/month, all of the other on-demand services will have to offer the same price. Spotify, Rhapsody, and Rdio would find themselves with unsustainable financial structures and/or the necessity of renegotiating their record label deals. The best that any of these “pure play” services could hope for is to become acquisition bait for companies that are big and diverse enough to be able to cross-subsidize them (Yahoo and AOL come to mind). A move to $5/month could even cause Google to rethink its plan to launch a paid subscription music service associated with YouTube.
In short, I predict that if Apple gets record companies to agree to $5/month for on-demand music, we will see a repeat of the shakeout that occurred around 2007-2008, which left only a handful of on-demand services in the market. When the smoke clears, Apple could well find itself with a much larger chunk of the on-demand music market than if it were to try to grow its share organically.
The remaining mystery is whether Apple intends to add a free tier to Beats Music, such as a limited on-demand capability under the iTunes Radio banner. The advent of free, legal on-demand music from Spotify and (effectively) YouTube in 2011 did cause the on-demand model to grow from a niche product for music geeks to a mainstream offering. On-demand is still not quite as popular as Internet radio — I estimate the on-demand audience to be about 60% of the size of the audience for Pandora, iHeartRadio, etc. — but it has surpassed the user base for paid digital downloads.
On-demand is clearly a big part of the music industry’s digital future. Apple is behind in the transition from downloads to access-based models and needs to catch up. Only dramatic, disruptive gestures can make this happen, and halving the price is certainly one of them.
Adobe’s Latest E-Book Misstep: This Time, It’s Not the DRM October 10, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in DRM, Publishing, Technologies.
A few days ago, it emerged that the latest version of Adobe’s e-book reading software for PCs and Macs, Adobe Digital Editions 4 (ADE4), collects data about users’ reading activities and sends them to Adobe’s servers in unencrypted cleartext, so that anyone can intercept and use the data, even without NSA-grade snooping tools.
The story was broken by Nate Hoffelder at The Digital Reader on Monday. The Internet being the Internet, the techblogosphere was soon full of stories about it, mostly half-baked analysis, knee-jerk opinions, jumped-to conclusions, and just plain misinformation. Even the usually thorough and reliable Ars Technica, the first to publish serious technical analysis, didn’t quite get it right. At this time of writing, the best summary of it comes from the respected library technologist Eric Hellman.
More actual facts about this sorry case will emerge in the coming days, no doubt, leading to a fully clear picture of what Adobe is doing and why. My purpose here and now is to address the various accusations that this latest e-book gaffe by Adobe has to do with its DRM. These include a gun-jumping post by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) that has inadvertently dragged Sony DADC, the division of Sony that is currently marketing a DRM solution for e-books, into the mess undeservedly.
Let’s start with the basics: ADE4 does collect information about users’ reading activities and transmit it in the clear. This is just plain unacceptable; no matter what Adobe’s terms and conditions might say, it’s a breach of privacy and trust, and (as I’ll discuss later) it seems like a strange fit to Adobe’s role in the e-book ecosystem. Whether it’s naivete, sloppiness, or both, it’s redolent of Adobe’s missteps in its release of the latest version of its e-book DRM at the beginning of this year.
But is ADE4’s data reporting part of the DRM, as various people have suggested? No.
The reporting on this story to date has missed one small but important fact, which I suspected and then confirmed with a well-placed source yesterday: ADE4 reports data on all EPUB format files, whether or not they are DRM-encrypted. The DRM client (Adobe RMSDK) is completely separate from the reporting scheme. By analogy, this would be like Apple collecting data on users’ music and movie playing habits from their iTunes software, even though Apple’s music files are DRM-free (though movies are not).
Some savvier writers have pointed out that even though DRM may not be directly involved, this is what happens when users are forced to use media rendering software that’s part of a DRM-based ecosystem. This is a fair point, but in this particular case it’s not really true. (It would be more true in the case of Amazon, which forces people to use its e-reading devices and apps, and unquestionably collects data on users’ reading behaviors – although it encrypts the information.)
Unlike the Kindle ecosystem, users aren’t forced to use ADE4; it’s one of several e-reader software packages available that reads EPUB files that are encrypted with Adobe’s Content Server DRM. None of the major e-book retailers use or require it, at least not in the United States. Instead, it is most often used to read e-books that are borrowed from public libraries using e-lending platforms such as OverDrive; and in fact such libraries recommend and link to Digital Editions on their websites.
But other e-reader apps, such as the increasingly popular BlueFire Reader for Android, iOS, and Windows, will work just as well in reading e-books encrypted with Adobe’s DRM, as well as DRM-free EPUB files. BlueFire (who can blame them?) sees the opportunity here and points out that it does not do this type of data collection. Users of library e-lending systems can use BlueFire or other apps instead of ADE4. Earlier versions of ADE also don’t collect and report reading data.
A larger question is why Adobe collects this data in the first place. The usual reason for collecting users’ reading (or listening or viewing) data is for analytics purposes, to help content owners determine what’s popular and hone their marketing strategies. Yet not only is Adobe not an e-book retailer, but e-book retailers that use its DRM (such as Barnes & Noble) don’t use Digital Editions as their client software.
One possible explanation is that Adobe is expecting to market ADE4 as part of its new DRM ecosystem that’s oriented towards the academic and educational publishing markets, and that it expects the data to be attractive to publishers in those market segments (as opposed to the trade books typically found in public libraries). Eric Hellman suggests another plausible explanation: that it collects data not for analytics purposes but to support a device-syncing feature that all of the major e-book retailers already offer — so that users can automatically get their e-books on all of their devices and have each device sync to the last page that the user read in each book.
Regardless of the reason, it seems unsettling when a platform software vendor, as opposed to an actual retailer, collects this type of information. Here’s another analogy: various video websites use Microsoft’s Silverlight web application environment. Silverlight contains a version of Microsoft’s PlayReady DRM. Users don’t see the Microsoft brand; instead they see brands like Netflix that use the technology. Users might expect Netflix to collect information about their viewing habits (provided that Netflix treated the information appropriately), but they would be concerned to hear (in a vacuum) that Microsoft does it; and in fact Microsoft probably does contribute to the collection of viewing information for Netflix and other Silverlight users.
In any case, Adobe can fix the situation easily enough by encrypting the data (e.g., via SSL), providing a user option in Digital Editions to turn off the data collection, and offering better explanations as to why it collects the data in the first place (at least better than the ambiguous, anodyne, PR/legal department-buffed one shown here). Until then, platform providers like OverDrive can link to other reader apps, like BlueFire, instead of to Adobe Digital Editions.
Finally, as for Sony DADC: the EFF’s web page on this situation contains a link, as a “related case,” to material on a previous technical fiasco involving Sony BMG Music, one of the major recording companies in the mid-2000s. At that time, Sony BMG released some albums on CDs that had been outfitted with a form of DRM. When a user put the disc in a CD drive on a PC, an “autorun” executable installed a DRM client onto the PC, part of which was a “rootkit” that enabled viruses. After a firestorm of negative publicity that the EFF spearheaded, Sony BMG abandoned the technology. (In one of its more savvy gambits, the EFF used momentum from that episode to cause other major labels to drop their CD DRMs as well; the technology was dead in the water by 2008.) In this case, unlike with Adobe, the problem was most definitely in the DRM.
Apparently some people think that because this incident involved “Sony,” Sony DADC — which is currently marketing an e-book DRM solution based on the Marlin DRM technology — was involved. Not true; the DRM that installed the rootkit came from a British company called First4Internet (F4I). Not only did Sony DADC have nothing to do with this (as I have confirmed), but Sony DADC actually advised Sony Music against using the F4I technology.
That Old Question Again September 28, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in DRM, Economics, Music, Services, United States.
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I’m looking at the U.S. music revenue numbers that the RIAA just released for the first half of 2014; at the same time, I’m reading Download: How Digital Destroyed the Record Business, a 2013 book by the noted UK music journalist Phil Hardy, who tragically passed away in April of this year. For “numbers guys” like me, the book is a bonanza of information about the major labels’ travails during the transition from CDs to purely digital music. It’s a compendium of zillions of hard facts and opinions delivered with Hardy’s typical dry British wit — though (like his other books) it would have benefited from a copy editor and, occasionally, fact checker.
One of the statements in Hardy’s book that sits somewhere between fact and opinion is his assertion — as recently as last year! — that the elimination of DRM from music downloads boosted sales. Sigh… that old question again.
The question of whether DRM-free music download sales helped or hindered the music industry (no doubt it was good for consumers) served as a sort of Rorschach test back in the late 2000s after Apple and Amazon started selling DRM-free downloads — rather like the Rorschach test of Radiohead’s “pay what you wish” experiment in 2011. If you hated DRM, DRM-free was going to usher in a bright new era of opportunity for everyone; if you liked it, removing DRM was going to spell the end of the music business.
So I thought that with the RIAA revenue statistics database in hand, I could put the old question to rest. Here is what I found:
In this chart, “Downloads” includes singles plus albums; “Streaming” includes both paid and ad-supported on-demand services (Spotify, Rhapsody, YouTube, Vevo)* as well as Internet radio (Pandora, iHeartRadio, Slacker, TuneIn Radio), plus satellite radio and a few other odds and ends. I estimated totals for 2014 by taking the RIAA’s newly released numbers for the first half of this year and applying growth rates from the second half of 2013 to the first half of this year.
The relevant dates are:
- April 2003: Apple opens the iTunes Music Store.
- May 2007: Apple launches iTunes Plus, selling tracks from EMI without DRM for $1.29.
- January 2008: Amazon launches AmazonMP3 with DRM-free MP3s from all labels.
- May 2009: iTunes goes completely DRM-free in the US.
- 2011: Spotify launches its “freemium” model in the US; major labels complete ad revenue share deals with YouTube, so that virtually all major-label music is available on YouTube legally.
Before we get into the analysis, let’s get one thing out of the way: the biggest change in music industry revenues from 2003 onwards was, of course, the dramatic drop in revenues from CDs. Those numbers aren’t shown here; for one thing, they would dwarf the other numbers. This is all part of the move from physical products to digital products and services, which has affected both downloads and streaming.
Now let’s look at what happened after 2007. Growth in download sales began to slow down a bit, while streaming remained fairly flat. Starting in 2008, growth in paid downloads remained virtually unchanged until the ad-supported on-demand year of 2011. 2008 was a transitional year for DRM, as Apple only offered a small amount of music DRM-free (and at higher prices), while Amazon offered all DRM-free music but had only a single-digit share of the market. The real post-DRM era for paid downloads started in May 2009.
So, to see what happened after the major labels agreed to sell digital files without DRM, we need to look at the period from May 2009 to the start of 2011, which is highlighted in the chart. What happened then? Not much of anything. Growth in download sales was essentially unchanged from the preceding two years.
One could argue that if streaming hadn’t ever existed, download revenues might have grown after January 2009, given that streaming revenues from 2009-2011 started to grow faster. But given that streaming growth didn’t accelerate immediately after January 2009, I wouldn’t make that causality.
So there you have the answer to the old question: removing DRM from music files had little or no effect on download sales.
As a postscript, my 2014 projections included an interesting factoid: vinyl album sales, if current growth rates continue, should reach about $340 million this year. That takes the resurgence of vinyl from a mildly curious hipster phenomenon to almost 5% of total music revenue. For comparison purposes, it makes vinyl almost as valuable as ad-supported on-demand streaming (YouTube, Spotify Free, Vevo) and puts it on track to exceed that segment in 2015. Vinyl could even end up equaling CD revenue sometime around 2016-2017 — for the first time since the late 1980s!
*Paid subscription on-demand services include download features, which use DRM to tie files to users’ devices and make them playable as long as the user pays the subscription fees. But the RIAA reports these as part of “subscription services,” lumping them in with streaming on-demand music.
Ghosts in the UltraViolet Machine September 24, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Business models, Music, Publishing, Services, Video.
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A few brief items of interest this week. First is a reminder about Copyright and Technology London 2014 next Wednesday – there’s still time to register! We have a great lineup of keynote speakers, including Shira Perlmutter, Maria Martin-Prat, and Dominic Young of the Copyright Hub, as well as panels on hot issues such as ISP responsibility for policing infringement and content protection for “4K” video content. I look forward to seeing some of you in London next week.
Apple and Amazon Add UltraViolet-Style Family Accounts
Amazon and Apple recently announced the addition of “family accounts” for sharing content. These enable up to six users who share a billing address to link accounts and get access to each other’s content, including e-books, apps, music, and video. Apple’s Family Share is a feature of the new version of its mobile operating system, iOS 8, while Amazon’s Family Library feature is expected to launch later this Fall.
The primary difference between the two is that Apple Family Share enables the sharing of all videos downloaded from iTunes while Amazon only allows sharing of video streamed via Amazon Prime Instant Video, as opposed to videos purchased by non-members of Amazon Prime. (In other words, this is yet another gambit to entice more users into Amazon’s US $99/year Prime service.) Some websites have commented that Amazon’s service does not allow sharing of purchased music, while Apple’s does; but this is a bit silly given that music downloaded from both services is DRM-free.
It’s not particularly surprising that Hollywood studios have given both Amazon and Apple the rights to extend purchases to family accounts. That’s because the rights are similar to those that the studios already extend for the same types of content under UltraViolet usage rules. In fact, the availability of family access to video content from two of the biggest digital movie retailers eats into the advantages that UltraViolet offers. (UltraViolet’s principal retail partners are Nook (Barnes & Noble), Target, and Best Buy).
More surprising is that one of these retailers decided it was worth the development effort to add this feature (causing the other to add it as well); perhaps this is a sign that UltraViolet is catching on? Either way, this is yet another example of how the mainstreaming of digital content products and services has exposed deficiencies in the rights that users get to digital content compared to physical products such as DVDs (not to mention print books) and has led to innovation. I would expect a similar announcement from Google Play in time for the holiday shopping season.
Garth Brooks Launches GhostTunes
Finally, a minor hypestorm erupted in the music industry recently over the beta launch of GhostTunes, a new digital music retail site spearheaded by country music superstar — and longtime digital holdout — Garth Brooks. Contrary to initial reports, GhostTunes does not only sell albums; it also sells single tracks — though only at artists’ or labels’ discretion. Purchased music is available in an online locker and can be streamed or downloaded as DRM-free MP3s. Some items are multi-album packages that contain multimedia items, in the vein of Apple’s iTunes LP.
Many musical artists will surely like GhostTunes’ willingness to sell single tracks only if the artist permits it. The recorded music industry has been looking for ways to prop up the sales of albums in the digital age — just as UltraViolet was originally intended to help Hollywood studios prop up sales of movies while all of the growth is in streaming. According to RIAA statistics, single track sales accounted for about 1% of unit volume when the iTunes Music Store opened in 2003 and have grown to over 80% today.
Yet GhostTunes looks like it is shaping up to be the music industry’s Pluto Nash moment: an expensive undertaking whose primary function is to cater to the whims of a big influential star rather than to be successful as a business. Although GhostTunes is billed as an “artist-friendly” retail site, there’s little reason for anyone to go there other than the exclusive availability of Garth Brooks’s music in digital form… legally. The music selection comes from all three major labels but is limited: the press release touts “a million tracks” (compared to more than 20 million on iTunes or Spotify), while the site itself appears even more limited to a few dozen releases in each of several genres. The highlight of the current catalog is a bundle of a dozen albums plus a concert video from Brooks himself for $30.
GhostTunes received a moderate amount of attention two weeks ago, ranging from neutral and factual to critical and skeptical. The press release contains a combination of vague hype (“music fans and artists deserve more”) and either falsehoods or anachronisms (“Just as it seemed fans would be left buying music in an increasingly more restrictive configuration without the ability to take the music they purchase anywhere they please, GhostTunes.com offers a new way.”)
It’s hard to see what GhostTunes can possibly offer that isn’t available on iTunes or Amazon — other than low prices for album bundles — but we’ll see what it does offer when (or if) it goes from beta to full launch.
Digimarc Launches Social DRM for E-books September 17, 2014Posted by Bill Rosenblatt in Fingerprinting, Publishing, Technologies.
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Digimarc, the leading supplier of watermarking technology, announced this week the release of Digimarc Guardian Watermarking for Publishing, a transactional watermarking (a/k/a “social DRM”) scheme that complements its Guardian piracy monitoring service. Launch customers include the “big five” trade publisher HarperCollins, a division of News Corp., and the e-book supply chain company LibreDigital, a division of the printing giant RR Donnelley that distributes e-books for HarperCollins in the US.
With this development, Digimarc finally realizes the synergies inherent in its acquisition of Attributor almost two years ago. Digimarc’s roots are in digital image watermarking, and it has expanded into watermarking technology for music and other media types. Attributor’s original business was piracy monitoring for publishers via a form of fingerprinting — crawling the web in search of snippets of copyrighted text materials submitted by publisher customers.
One of the shortcomings in Attributor’s piracy monitoring technology was the difficulty in determining whether a piece of text that it found online was legitimately licensed or, if not, if it was likely to be a fair use copy. Attributor could use certain cues from surrounding text or HTML to help make these determinations, but they are educated guesses and not infallable.
The practical difference between fingerprinting and watermarking is that watermarking requires the publisher to insert something into its material that can be detected later, while fingerprinting doesn’t. But watermarking has two advantages over fingerprinting. One is that it provides a virtually unambiguous signal that the content was lifted wholesale from its source; thus a copy of content with a watermark is more likely to be infringing. The other is that while fingerprinting can be used to determine the identity of the content, watermarking can be used to embed any data at all into it (up to a size limit) — including data about the identity of the user who purchased the file.
The Digimarc Guardian watermark is complementary to the existing Attributor technology; Digimarc has most likely adapted Attributor’s web-crawling system to detect watermarks as well as use fingerprinting pattern-matching techniques to find copyrighted material online.
Digimarc had to develop a new type of watermark for this application, one that’s similar to those of Booxtream and other providers of what Bill McCoy of the International Digital Publishing Forum has called “social DRM.” Watermarks do not restrict or control use of content; they merely serve as forensic markers, so that watermark detection tools can find content in online places (such as cyberlockers or file-sharing services) where they probably shouldn’t be.
A “watermark” in an e-book can consist of text characters that are either plainly visible or hidden among the actual material. The type of data most often found in a “social DRM” scheme for e-books likewise can take two forms: personal information about the user who purchased the e-book (such as an email address) or an ID number that the distributor can use to look up the user or transaction in a database and is otherwise meaningless. (The idea behind the term “social DRM” is that the presence of the watermark is intended to deter users from “oversharing” files if they know that their identities are embedded in them.) The Digimarc scheme adopted by LibreDigital for HarperCollins uses hidden watermarks containing IDs that don’t reveal personal information by themselves.
In contrast, the tech publisher O’Reilly Media uses users’ email addresses as visible watermarks on its DRM-free e-books. Visible transactional watermarking for e-books dates back to Microsoft’s old Microsoft Reader (.LIT) scheme in the early 2000s, which gave publishers the option of embedding users’ credit card numbers in e-books — information that users surely would rather not “overshare.”
HarperCollins uses watermarks in conjunction with the various DRM schemes in which its e-books are distributed. The scheme is compatible with EPUB, PDF, and MOBI (Amazon Kindle) e-book formats, meaning that it could possibly work with the DRMs used by all of the leading e-book retailers.
However, it’s unclear which retailers’ e-books will actually include the watermarks. The scheme requires that LibreDigital feed individual e-book files to retailers for each transaction, rather than single files that the retailers then copy and distribute to end users; and the companies involved haven’t specified which retailers work with LibreDigital in this particular way. (I’m not betting on Amazon being one of them.) In any case, HarperCollins intends to use the scheme to gather information about which retailers are “leaky,” i.e., which ones distribute e-books that end up in illegal places online.
Hollywood routinely uses a combination of transactional watermarks and DRM for high-value content, such as high-definition movies in early release windows. And at least some of the major record labels have used a simpler form of this technique in music downloads for some time: when they send music files to retailers, they embed watermarks that indicate the identity of the retailer, not the end user. HarperCollins is unlikely to be the first publisher to use both “social DRM” watermarks and actual DRM, but it is the first one to be mentioned in a press release. The two technologies are complementary and have been used separately as well as together.