Jewish World Review April 25, 2001 / 3 Iyar, 5761
Hane C. Lee
http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- EVEN as music labels move aggressively to offer consumers online access to tunes, they continue to learn just how difficult it will be to achieve their goal.
Take, for example, the fracas over the Jeff Buckley album "Grace."
The only studio recording the young singer-songwriter released before he accidentally drowned in 1997, "Grace" was yanked from users' personal MP3.com digital lockers last week, along with about 1,700 other album titles, because of "unforeseen licensing issues," according to an e-mail sent out by the online music site.
In December, Buckley's estate slapped a ban on Napster users who were caught trading unauthorized Buckley tracks. This time, though, both Buckley's estate and his label, Columbia Records, insist that they did not ask MP3.com to remove the album.
Meanwhile, MP3.com maintains that Sony Music, Columbia's parent label, "scratched out" "Grace" from its list of approved titles it sent to the music-service provider this month. To comply with Sony's wishes, MP3.com has disabled access to more than 25 percent of the Sony-issued albums in its library, by artists ranging from Joan Jett to Yo-Yo Ma.
The move signals just how far the music industry is from being able to legally offer the kind of selection and convenience consumers want from digital music services. The popularity of MP3.com, Napster and others has revealed a huge thirst among consumers for accessing music online. But those companies have complained that their efforts to satisfy that demand have been stymied by arcane copyright laws and by a general resistance on the part of the record label giants.
MP3.com's Beam-It and Instant Listening technologies provide consumers with immediate access from any Net-connected PC to digital streams of CDs they own via a password-protected digital locker called My.MP3.com. The five major record labels - Universal, Sony, BMG, Warner and EMI - sued the company when it launched My.MP3.com last year, charging that it hadn't secured the proper licenses to digitize and stream its library of albums.
MP3.com was eventually ordered to pay Universal $53.4 million, and it settled with the other four labels for another $80 million combined. The deals gave MP3.com licenses to the majors' catalogs. In addition, the Internet company also reached an agreement with Harry Fox Agency, the firm that represents a vast majority of music publishers who own a separate copyright for music released by record labels.
As part of its deals, MP3.com says it asks for a quarterly update from the labels of any changes that might affect its licenses. So far, only Sony has taken action to have certain titles removed from MP3.com's library.
However, Sony officials insist that Buckley's "Grace" was not on the list of forbidden albums. Representatives of both Sony and MP3.com concede that a simple clerical error or misinterpretation of the document may be to blame for the album's removal. Following numerous inquiries by The Industry Standard, the two companies say they are working to resolve the matter. MP3.com says it plans to resubmit to Sony a list of album titles it contends were cut at the record label's request. After Sony reviews the list, MP3.com says, it will reactivate any titles that were mistakenly removed.
Regardless, a vast majority of those titles are expected to remain off-limits, because of objections by artists such as Bruce Springsteen who have fiercely protected the digital release of their recordings, or because of unresolved publishing issues. Not only does a single album potentially have several publishers, each holding separate rights, but the data supporting those rights has yet to be compiled, digitized or even submitted by the publishers in any coherent, standard way, says MP3.com CEO Michael Robertson.
"It's the same dilemma all online initiatives are stuck with," Robertson says, pointing out that even major-label projects MusicNet and Duet face the challenge of clearing the complex publishing rights to each label's sound recordings. "We have all these licenses and we still can't turn everything on, because the data is such a mess."
"It's an adjustment period" for the music industry, adds MP3.com COO Derrick Oien. "It'll get there, but there's a long ways to go."
In the meantime, MP3.com isn't the only party suffering from the
silence. Music buyers as well as artists are upset that albums that
were once available through their digital lockers - music that's
already been paid for - have been taken
Hane C. Lee writes for The Industry Standard. Comment by clicking here.