July 09, 2004

No Guarantees with Content Subscriptions

Recently, on Copyfight, there have been a couple of posts about "tethered" music services (A Tale of Two Tethers and RCN's New Tethered Music Service). In A Tale of Two Tethers, Jason Schultz linked to a NY Times article in which a proponent of subscription streaming music services (as opposed to downloads) touts the supposed superiority of access such services provide (From a High-Tech System, Low-Fi Music):

Richard Wolpert, chief strategy officer of RealNetworks Inc., the parent of RealRhapsody, takes aim at Apple when he muses that customers will be unhappy when they decide that they want to own music encoded at 320, not at 128. Far better, he argued, to abandon the notion of "owning" songs, because the concept condemns users to endless purchases. "How many times do you want to own your music?" he asked. "I own my music as eight-tracks, I own my music as albums, I own my music as cassettes, I own my music as CD's."

With a subscription service like RealRhapsody, one saves personal tastes in the form of playlists that replace actual music collections, providing access to favorites no matter what storage format comes out "in the next 5 or 10 or 20 years," Mr. Wolpert said. [link omitted]

Unfortunately, access to favorites isn't guaranteed. According to Joe Gratz, some of the music on Rhapsody has a tendency to disappear, sometimes in only a few weeks (The Danger of Subscription Music Services):
Several times over the past few months, new releases have appeared on Rhapsody on their release date, only to be pulled from the catalog a few weeks or months later.
Imagine the licensing battles of the future. When renegotiating licenses, artists and publishers could pull their music out of the subscription system, thus leaving subscribers with no access to the music on the playlists they so carefully created. Gratz anticipates even shadier behaviour:
There is the possibility here for some very nasty crack-dealer-like licensing behavior on the part of the record companies: they license to subscription services for a while, then pull the album so people who are hooked go out and buy the CDs. Record companies could even repeat this gambit over and over, hooking new subscription-service users then forcing CD purchases each time.
Wolpert's right. A subscription service means that your music can be upgraded over time (though shouldn't we be at a point where upgrades are unnecessary?). Of course, that doesn't help much if the music is taken off the subscription service. That's a risk that Wolpert failed to mention. Maybe ownership isn't passe quite yet (Rental Nation).

Posted by Ernest at 11:27 PM
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