Amazon Cloud Player and scan-and-match
Last year in this space I took note of the launch of a new product from Amazon.com called Cloud Player, and asked “Amazon’s Cloud Player Is Cool. But Is It Legal?”
Amazon is not the first company to have had the idea of letting you establish an online “music locker” to let you access your music from anywhere. The first was the pioneering music site MP3.com, all the way back in the late ’90s. I wrote about my admiration for MP3.com’s innovative spirit 11 years ago(!), and their version of this service, called My.MP3.com, was a good example of that; it worked pretty much the way Amazon’s service does, only you didn’t even have to rip your CDs or upload any files anywhere to use it — you just put a CD in your drive to confirm that you owned it, and My.MP3.com loaded pre-ripped MP3s for that CD directly into your locker for you.
For 1999, this was pretty crazy advanced stuff. So naturally the record labels took notice and sued MP3.com out of business over it…
I initially figured that the key difference would be in the final point — whether Amazon, unlike MP3.com, did anything to address the potential impact of their service on the market. In other words, My.MP3.com was illegal because tiny MP3.com made the CDs available without paying a licensing fee for that music to the copyright holders, but Amazon’s service wouldn’t be, because they would have made those licensing deals first.
But then I read in the Wall Street Journal today that Amazon didn’t make a licensing deal with the copyright holders for their new service…
So what gives? Is Amazon just hoping that the world has changed enough in eleven years that an idea that crossed the line in 2000 won’t cross the line in 2011?
Well, yesterday, an Amazon press release gave us an answer:
SEATTLE–(BUSINESS WIRE)–Jul. 31, 2012– (NASDAQ: AMZN) – Amazon.com, Inc. today announced Cloud Player licensing agreements that bring significant updates to Amazon Cloud Player. The agreements are with Sony Music Entertainment, EMI Music, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group, and more than 150 independent distributors, aggregators and music publishers.
It appears that the licensing deals were required to implement at least one new feature that just rolled out in Cloud Player: “scan and match,” where the application scans your music library and automatically unlocks songs it finds in it in your Cloud Player without you having to upload them. This is the same way that the precedent-setting service I described in my original post, My.MP3.com, worked, and which got them sued into oblivion for implementing it without licenses.
This seems consistent with the distinction Amazon was making at the time of the Cloud Player launch, which was that they didn’t need licenses then because users were just uploading their own files. Now they’re not just letting people upload their own files, though — they’re playing back files that Amazon owns, with your permission to access those files being based on the contents of your music library. So, to avoid being sued into oblivion the way My.MP3.com was, licenses became required.
Personally, I still find this distinction between “files users uploaded” and “files we matched to files a user could upload” to be kind of thin. It originally seemed like Amazon did too; and that by tiptoeing close to the My.MP3.com precedent without getting licenses first, they were positioning themselves to challenge it. But the risk to the labels of such a challenge would now appear to be over.