Follow-Up to: Developing Decent Digital Distribution Solutions

10 December 2008

In our previous post, Developing Decent Digital Distribution Solutions, Ip's What's Up reported about a Vanderbilt University class called "Stealing in Music City" where the students had to develop a new digital distribution system for the music industry.  The three student groups presented their solutions last week Tuesday, December 2nd.  The video of their presentations is now available on YouTube and VUCast.

The video itself is almost an hour long, and Ip's What's Up doubts many of its readers have time to watch the whole thing.  We wanted to summarize the groups' projects for you.  Unfortunately, the Nigerian internet didn't like that plan.  So, we offer you a summary of the first group and most of the second group.  (Our apologies to Group 3.  We are sure you put a lot of effort into your project as well and will report on it as soon as we're able.)

Groups one and two each consisted of three, visibly nervous, first-year students.  It is apparent from their presentations that they learned a lot about copyright and the music industry during their semester and that they put a lot of work into developing their solutions.  We hope their professors are proud of them and will continue the seminar in the future.

Group 1

The first group pulled ideas to improve the music industry from a variety of sources.  They talked about revising the copyright law to make it easier for artists, consumers and labels to understand, particularly the areas relating to ownership, fair use and the public domain.  That's probably good for everyone, except the attorneys.

On the production end, the group adopted the licensing model mentioned by David Byrne in a article.  Through the group's version of this model, artists could only license their recordings to a label for a limited time, rather than assigning the entire copyright to the label.  (The label would not be allowed to own any masters.)  The group adopted this plan because they believe labels play an important role in promoting artists but also think artists should have more say in their careers.

On the distribution side, the group incorporated two ideas supported by Professor Michael Bressman.  (Professor Bressman teaches the IP Clinic at Vanderbilt law and visited the undergraduate class as a guest speaker.)  The group suggested an increase in the number of legal online music distribution sites and that these sites should use monthly fees rather than per song payment arrangements.  The group seemed unaware that there are more music download sites than iTunes, but perhaps that was just their example.  [Some music sites: iTunes (the standard), eMusic (which is monthly subscribtions), (drm free), napster (the newer, legal version),, puretracks, there are many more.  Note: Some of these will not work outside the US.]

The group also looked at changing social norms, turning illegal downloading into something un-cool instead of something normal.  The ideas here were a bit reminiscent of anti-drug and anti-gang programs (Downloading Abuse Resistance Education?), and made this Ipper feel rather old.  Their suggestion: include internet safety and copyright in the existing elementary school computer classes.  These classes already teach students how to type and use the internet; they should teach how to do it safely and legally.

In addition to incorporating music downloading etiquette into computer classes, the government should also use things like pamphlets and public service announcements to educate people about piracy.  They suggested these tools be a bit less extreme and a bit more honest than the RIAA's versions.

Overall, it seemed the group attempted to address several different aspects of the music downloading issue: the relationships between people in the industry, the availability of legal downloadable music for consumers, and the social norms that still seem to lean towards acceptability for illegal downloading.

Group 2

Group 2 took a different approach and developed a unique system for digital distribution.  They described it as using the technology of file sharing but ensuring artists and labels get paid.  Their system consists of a government run network that sounds sort of like a Facebook for record labels and publishing companies.

Record labels, publishing companies and independent artists with more than twelve songs can sign-up to be part of the network.  They will get their own page that they can design however they'd like.  They can use the page to promote different artists, activities and events, and to offer downloads of their catalogues.  (The reason for the minimum of twelve songs has to do with balancing the costs and benefits of the system for independent artists.)

The consumers choose from one of various subscription levels.  Each subscription allows them to share a certain number of files per month, with the platinum level giving them unlimited access.  The prices for these subscriptions are intended to be fairly low in order to shift the economic supply curve: lower cost = more downloads.  It's a little confusing if the "sharing" involves offering tracks already in consumers libraries for upload/download by another, or if it really just means downloading from one of the label/publisher pages.  (This may be clarified later in the group's presentation, if anybody is able to watch the whole thing and can add some clarity to this point, please leave a comment.)

The government is in charge of setting up this network and managing it, as well as acting as a sort of collecting society for all transactions on the network.  The group chose the government to run the network in order to eliminate the cost created by a middle-man like iTunes and because they felt the government would bring a certain neutrality, less focused on profit and more focused on boosting the economy and supporting the industry.

Although similar in some ways to existing on-line stores, their system seems to present some unique ideas.  If it does indeed involve file sharing with a collecting society-type entity tracking, it offers some definite benefits over existing on-line music options, like locating those hard to find remixes.  There would be a lot of details to work out before such a system would be viable (such as ensuring that tracks are properly identified), but it's certainly an interesting idea to ponder.



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December 10, 2009 at 3:13:00 AM PST