When Michael Robertson heard news of AutoRip, the new Amazon service that automatically adds high-quality MP3s to Cloud Player when you buy a CD, he must have had a sense of deja vu. After all, the entrepreneur introduced a similar service way back in 1999. Unfortunately, it wasn't licensed by the recording industry, and they sued it out of existence. He tried again with a licensed service in 2007, but only one label would cut a deal and the company failed to gain traction.
In a Friday interview with Ars Technica, Robertson told us that the major labels' decision to license AutoRip represents a sea change in their attitudes toward cloud music services. Until the last couple of years, the labels were relentlessly hostile to the idea that consumers should have the freedom to store DRM-free music online. But a series of business failures and legal defeats forced the labels to face reality. And so fourteen years after Robertson first floated the concept, consumers finally have the freedom to instantly get an MP3 when they buy a CD online.
Robertson's first company, MP3.com was one of the hottest startups in Silicon Valley when it launched what we would now call a cloud music service, My.MP3.com, in 1999. The service included a feature called "Beam-It" that allowed users to instantly stock their online lockers with music from their personal CD collections.
And MP3.com also signed deals with several online CD vendors. If a user bought a CD from one of those vendors, MP3s of the songs on the CD would immediately become available for streaming from the user's MP3.com music locker.
Licensed services like iTunes were still years in the future, largely because labels were skittish about selling music online. But Robertson believed he didn't need a license because the service was permitted by copyright's fair use doctrine. If a user can rip his legally purchased CD to his computer, why can't he also store a copy of it online? Robertson didn't see himself as facilitating copyright infringement. He just wanted to give users a more convenient way to get music they had already paid for.
But the courts disagreed, ruling that MP3.com needed licenses from copyright holders to operate the service. And the labels simply weren't interested in Robertson's vision of convenient and flexible music lockers. So MP3.com was driven into bankruptcy, and the "buy a CD, get an MP3" concept fell by the wayside.
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