Ghosts in the UltraViolet Machine

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.

Meanwhile…

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.

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