Missed This Salon Article – File Formats and Music

Musical snares (Letters in response)

This is not the place to engage in a detailed discussion of the relative merits of the different formats. Suffice it to say that about a year ago I committed an egregious error. When I finally purchased my first computer with a CD burner, I was so excited about being able to make my own CD mixes that I unthinkingly went ahead and used the Windows Media Player to rip all my favorite CDs to my hard drive. The Windows Media Player allows users to encode their songs only in the WMA format, which (like iTunes’ AAC format) comes with various digital rights management capabilities built in.

Now I have all this music that iTunes won’t play, and a bunch of songs purchased from iTunes that the Media Player won’t play. So, at the moment, I am prevented from burning a CD that has songs from both libraries. There are converters available that will transform WMA files into AACs and eventually there will no doubt be converters that perform the reverse service, but the process is a hassle that may end up downgrading the overall sound quality. I would have been far better off if I had ripped all my CDs to MP3s to begin with, because iTunes and the iPod will play MP3s. (And even, better, the iTunes software will allow me to rip my CDs into MP3s.)

I should have known better, because now I’m sitting exactly where Microsoft wants me, facing a significant “switching cost” if I want to adopt iTunes as my music-management software of choice. It takes time to rip CDs — and I have a lot of ’em.

[…] I am confident that the marketplace is going to steadily deliver a progression of options that benefit me in some way: a wider selection of songs, lower prices, easier-to-use software. But I’m not confident that I won’t be endlessly posed with a series of ever more onerous switching costs. Perhaps, once hard drives and bandwidth get big enough, we’ll be able to do away with compression formats altogether, but companies like Microsoft and Apple are still going to strive to lock users in to their software/hardware platforms as long as they can. And that is decidedly not an example of the marketplace serving my consumer desires.

Here We Go Again

Donna sent me the heads-up — CNet News: RIAA files 80 new file-swapping suits

It subsequently sent warning letters to 204 people early in October, saying they had been identified as likely targets of a new round of suits. On Thursday, the group said that 124 of those people decided to try to resolve the issue without going to court.

Note the RIAA is generally celebrating: RIAA Strikes Back At Music Pirates In 2003 — Slashdot commentary: RIAA Calls Settlements Proof that Education is Working

Slashdot includes this transcript of a recent (pending?) South Park episode, spoofing A Christmas Carol and the RIAA’s music downloading posture:

Re:South Park (Score:4, Funny)

by LordKronos (470910) on Friday October 31, @08:47AM (#7357128)

(http://www.ronfrazier.net/)

Here is the transcript:

http://www.spscriptorium.com/Season7/E709script.htm

Detective: This is the home of Lars Ulrich, the drummer for Metallica. [they approach a bush] Look. There’s Lars now, sitting by his pool. [he’s seen sitting on the edge of a chaise longue, his face in his hands, softly sobbing]

Kyle: What’s the matter with him?

Detective: This month he was hoping to have a gold-plated shark tank bar installed right next to the pool, but thanks to people downloading his music for free, he must now wait a few months before he can afford it. [a close-up of Lars sobbing] Come. There’s more. [leads them away. Next seen is a small airport at night] Here’s Britney Spears’ private jet. Notice anything? [a shot of Britney boarding a plane, then stopping to look at it before entering] Britney used to have a Gulfstream IV. Now she’s had to sell it and get a Gulfstream III because people like you chose to download her music for free. [Britney gives a heavy sigh and goes inside.] The Gulfstream III doesn’t even have a remote control for its surround-sound DVD system. Still think downloading music for free is no big deal?

Kyle: We… didn’t realize what we were doing, eh…

Detective: That is the folly of man. Now look in this window. [they are at another mansion, and they look inside a picture window] Here you see the loving family of Master P. [He’s shown tossing a basketball to his wife while his kid tries to catch it] Next week is his son’s birthday and, all he’s ever wanted was an island in French Polynesia. [his mom lowers the ball and gives it to the boy, who smiles, picks it up and drops it. It rolls away and he goes after it]

Kyle: So, he’s gonna get it, right?

Detective: I see an island without an owner. If things keep going the way they are, the child will not get his tropical paradise.

Stan: [apologetically] We’re sorry! We’ll, we’ll never download music for free again!

Detective: [somberly, dramatically] Man must learn to think of these horrible outcomes before he acts selfishly or else… I fear… recording artists will be forever doomed to a life of only semi-luxury.

Attacking P2P With P2P

A press release at MI2N leads me to the company Meier Worldwide Intermedia (and their noxious splash screen) and their subsidiary, Covenant Corporation. A ClariNews site article passes along this interesting business plan:

Covenant is developing a service designed to counteract online piracy of video, music and software files. Covenant’s primary service essentially uploads to pirate sites a large number of fictitious files with a video, music or software name, making it more difficult for visitors to the pirate site to download the real video, music or software they are attempting to pirate.

The MI2N press release cited above is a little more explicit:

To preview tracks of artists including New School, individuals can join Covenant at no charge to become members and have the opportunity to win cash and prizes by helping combat piracy in the industry and protect the artists. By downloading Covenant’s patent-pending CMD program at www.protectedbycovenenat.com, members earn the unique opportunity to not only preview music before it is released, but also play a key role in the fight against piracy.

Covenant Corporation, is developing a service designed to counteract online piracy of video, music and software files. Covenant’s primary service essentially uploads to pirate sites a large number of fictitious files with a video, music or software name, making it more difficult for visitors to the pirate site to download the real video, music or software they are attempting to pirate.

Note that the ProtectedByCovenant site is a little less clear about what’s going on. From their what is it/intro page

However you heard of us, here is all you need to know about becoming a member of Team Covenant.

Acting on behalf of the artists you love, Covenant distributes promotional versions of upcoming songs via popular P2P systems such as Kazaa or Gnutella. All you have to do is download our program called the Covenant Media Distributor (CMD). The CMD then automatically downloads new mp3s from our servers to your computer so that others can preview pre-release tracks. This simple process automatically makes you eligible to win a metric buttload of cash. Just leave the CMD running; the longer you leave it on, the more cash you can win!

Why do we do this? Well, the internet allows these bands to get their music heard, and it is waaaaay cheaper to do it this way than to pay a ton of radio stations, stores etc.

The party line defending this approach can be found in this fawning article from ION Magazine:

This may sound like the pitch of a business man trying to overestimate the state-of-the- scene buy [sic] Meier is right on the money. It is the major labels and the artists that the file-sharers are stealing from and thus causing them to lose money. If the labels lose money so do the artists, which mean only the highest selling artists get release priority. In turn, less new acts are developed and released as the labels have fewer resources to promote and market these up-and-coming musical acts. At this point it is not the fault of the labels for not bringing new acts to the forefront but the online consumers who are draining the pockets of the major labels and artists. This is what pissess off consumers the most, hearing the same stuff over and over again, when what they want more than anything is that new hot single from whoever is the artist of the moment. You see that vicious cycle again?

A cute pitch, and a nasty product. I can just imagine the countermeasures that one might see deployed. IANAL, but I wonder just what sort of liability one might be exposed to by joining an organization that pays you to corrupt a digital information distribution network?

(Note that there’s been some material in the wind since March about this.)

FTC on Patent Policy

Well, here’s something different: FTC Issues Report on How to Promote Innovation Through Balancing Competition with Patent Law and Policy [via Slashdot] The executive summary to the report points out a number of the issues that have been troubling in this area, although some of the recommendations are surprising in their obviousness — I probably need to read the entire report before I can really comment, though.

When I say abviousness, consider this recommendation: "Consider possible harm to competition — along with other possible benefits and costs — before extending the scope of patentable subject matter." I thought that has been the requirement all along?

Universal vs. Retail

Music Retailers Slow to Adopt Plan to Lower Price of CD’s [pdf]

A month after Universal Music announced it was cutting CD prices by as much as 30 percent, shoppers looking for the results in the aisles of music stores may be coming away disappointed.

Retailers, many of them angry over details of the plan that may hurt their profit margins, are instituting the price changes slowly and unevenly. A result is a patchwork of prices, ranging from less than $10 to nearly $16, on new Universal CD’s from artists like Ludacris and Edie Brickell. At least one major retailer, Virgin Megastore, has refused to comply with the plan that lowers the wholesale price and eliminates promotional subsidies, selling new Universal CD’s like Ludacris’s “Chicken & Beer” for $15.99. Others, like the HMV chain, have clambered on board, selling “Chicken & Beer” and other Universal titles for the new suggested list price of less than $13. Other deep discounters, including Wal-Mart and Best Buy, have stuck near their customary prices of just under $10.

The result has muted the effect of the price plan, setting the stage for a new battle next month when Universal Music, part of Vivendi Universal, begins an advertising campaign telling consumers to look for the lowered prices at cooperating stores.