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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

October 8, 2007 at 12:14 PM

Amazon’s MP3 store, watermarks and fair use

I’m not the only one on a fair use jag today.

Jeff Atwood’s “Coding Horror” has a great piece today on You Tube: The Big Copyright Lie. It goes much deeper on fair use than I did in today’s column on Amazon’s new MP3 store.

Channeling Viacom boss Philippe Dauman, Atwood rips YouTube/Google for its hypocrisy:

What I don’t understand is why YouTube continues to get away with the big copyright lie they’ve perpetuated from day one. They pay lip service to copyright, while building their business on an empire of unauthorized, copyrighted content. It’s so brazen — so blatant.

I wonder if music stores are doing the same thing by offering DRM-free music that they know is likely to be used in ways that violate its licensing rules. But it’s different, because YouTube is giving stuff away while music stores are charging for content, making contracts and linking buyers to content.

It could get interesting if those links are used for enforcement, and not just to cover the backsides of distributors.

Could a record company figure out it if you were the one who bought the copy of a song that was copied a few times and ended up being distributed to millions of people online?

Some, but not all, of the songs sold at Amazon’s MP3 store are traceable by music studios even though they don’t have DRM software.

Instead, some have digital watermarks that identify their origin. This is what Pete Baltaxe, Amazon’s director of digital music, told me when I asked about watermarking last week:

“Amazon does not apply any watermarking so in some cases the labels have asked, or are interested in providing files that would indicate that Amazon was the retailer.”

It seemed like a sensitive subject to Baltaxe, who stressed that Amazon isn’t doing this, but record labels are:

To be clear, we don’t apply any watermarking … In some cases labels can deliver us sound files that have a watermark that indicates Amazon is the retailer. Amazon doesn’t apply any watermarking.

Still, Amazon’s music store is a leap ahead in useability. It’s so good, consumers probably won’t care about watermarking or terms of service.

It could inspire other music vendors to follow suit. At least that’s the advice of Yahoo Music’s Ian Rogers, who helped build the company’s music store around Microsoft’s DRM technology.

Amazon’s MP3 store got it right, he said in a presentation (“Convenience wins, hubris loses …”) that he made to other music business-types and then posted on his blog. An excerpt:

But now, eight years later, Amazon’s finally done what was clearly the right solution in 1999. Music in the format that people actually want it in, with a Web-based experience that’s simple and works with any device. I bought tracks from Amazon (Kevin Drew and No Age), downloaded them, sync’d them to my new iPod Nano, and had them playing in my home audio system (Control 4) in less than five minutes. PRAISE JESUS. It only took 8 years.

8 years. How much opportunity have we lost in those 8 years? How much naivety and hubris did we have when we said, “If we build it they will come”? What did we spend? And what did we gain? We certainly didn’t gain mass user adoption or trust, two prerequisites to success on the Internet.


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