Is it already too late for digital music lockers?

There’s been a great deal of talk about digital lockers since the start of the year, mainly as Apple and Google prepare to enter the ‘music-based cloud-storage market’. But this week Amazon beat them both to become the first major player to launch such a product.

These systems, which allow you to upload your MP3 collection to an online ‘locker’ in order to play it back at any time on any internet-connected device, have been around for some time now. Google and Apple already offer online storage systems which can be used for MP3s, though without user-friendly ways to play back music files. There are various reasons why more user-friendly music-focused locker services have not, as yet, taken off.

One is a problem that has plagued many a forward-thinking web service until fairly recently: bandwidth. Although few internet users are not now on broadband, limits on usage and upload speeds have been (and continue to be in some cases) prohibitive to uploading a large music collection. Also, until the rise of smartphones, it was fairly uncommon to have a portable net-connected device, which is what you’d most likely want to be streaming music to – OK maybe you’d want to be able to listen to your home MP3 collection on your work computer, but your employer may have something to say about that. And even with smartphones (more so, in fact) bandwidth remains a major issue.

Then there are the licensing issues. Many, Amazon included, say that digital lockers don’t require the sorts of licences from record labels and music publishers that other digital services do, arguing that putting back-up copies of MP3s a user has already bought onto a remote server is no different than making back-up copies to an external hard-disk, and no one would expect to pay again when they do that.

But others – mainly labels and publishers – disagree. Some say that uploading MP3s to and playing them back from a server in the cloud is not the same as backing them up on an external hard disk. Some might even argue that, anyway, technically a licence is needed to make any sort of back-up, even to a simple external hard disk. The reason such opposing opinions can exist on this issue is because copyright law in all territories is rather vague on such matters, and therefore very open to interpretation.

We are most likely to get some clarity via US copyright law, because of a legal dispute between EMI and one of the best known existing music locker services, MP3tunes.com. They have launched a locker service without a licence, and EMI is suing them as a result, testing whether a licence is indeed needed. The case is ongoing, And earlier this year Google submitted to court a letter in support of MP3tunes and its founder, Michael Robertson (whom EMI is also suing directly), which perhaps suggests Google hopes to launch its much planned digital locker, like Amazon, without a licence (though they are reportedly, nevertheless, in talks with the labels).

It is thought Apple are hoping to avoid any possible litigation by persuading the labels to extend their existing iTunes licences so to allow some sort of digital locker – though probably one that will only allow users to upload music bought from the Apple download store. Amazon are also incentivising users of its new locker service to buy tracks via its MP3 platform (you get free locker use if you buy MP3s), so they would probably argue that their locker is really just a tool to help the music companies sell more tunes, another reason they shouldn’t have to pay an additional licence fee (though Amazon users will be able to upload music acquired from anywhere to their lockers).

Either way, expect the licensing of digital lockers debate to rumble on throughout the summer, and possibly until EMI v MP3tunes reaches its conclusion. Though, actually, perhaps this whole debate (and expensive legal squabble) is redundant. For labels to get all hot and bothered about digital lockers assumes that consumers actually want such a service. I wonder whether they do.

Since the first digital lockers appeared on the market, something bigger has arrived in the digital music domain: streaming services like Spotify and We7, and in the States Rhapsody and MOG. In the UK, Spotify is already the third most dominant digital service, behind iTunes and Amazon MP3, and it is still growing. And when you can access almost any song you want via any net-connected device (provided you’re willing to pay for mobile access) through a streaming service, why would you want to upload your limited MP3 collection anyway? In essence, Spotify is a digital locker which already has access to all your music and more, and you don’t have to go to the trouble of uploading everything yourself. And, for the record companies, there’s the added benefit Spotify et al pay a licensing fee everytime a song is played.

Okay, there are some reasons why a user might rather access their own MP3 collection via a locker rather than Spotify or We7. Firstly, a fully mobile streaming service will likely cost you more to use each year than a fully-mobile locker. Secondly, your own music collection doesn’t come with adverts which, if you go with the PC-based free versions, Spotify and We7 do. Thirdly, these services don’t have every song ever recorded in their catalogues yet, so depending on your taste they could be missing large chunks of what you like (and what is in your personal MP3 collection). Plus, of course, you might fear that, in an unpredictable market, your streaming service of choice could go offline at anytime leaving you with no music, whereas your backed up MP3 collection is yours forever.

But given just how far these streaming services have come in the last few years, while digital lockers remained very much in the backgroud, I wonder if there is that much demand for music storage any more. Especially if the labels win the licensing debate and locker providers are forced to add licensing fees or adverts to their storage systems to make things add up. So, in a world where Spotify, We7 et al do exist, is the digital locker already a redundant proposition?

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