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Standards for Personal Jukeboxes

Start-up foresees world in which users listen to their music anywhere but the labels still profit.

June 16, 2003|Jon Healey | Times Staff Writer

The music industry has sputtered its way into the Internet Age, with technological innovation sidetracked by the battle between major labels and youthful geeks over free music.

Now, two music-loving programmers -- alumni of the company that created the groundbreaking Gnutella file-sharing network -- are trying to chart a path to peace between the labels and the geeks.

Their company, Santa Cruz-based Mediacode Inc., envisions a world of online services that work together to make music more valuable to consumers and more profitable for distributors. By adopting the standards-based approach to the Internet, they argue, the music industry could create online opportunities that encourage programmers to promote the music business, rather than developing ways to steal from it.

"The goal here is to get the Linux hacker community to support the music community," Chief Executive Robert Lord said, referring to the zealous group of programmers working on an alternative to Microsoft Corp.'s Windows software.

Mediacode has developed an online service to start the ball rolling. Dubbed Muse.Net, it lets people with high-speed Internet connections listen to the music on their computers from any other computer online.

That kind of remote control, which Mediacode also provides for video, isn't built into any of the popular programs for playing music on a computer. Apple Computer Inc. briefly included a similar feature in its iTunes software, but dropped it after some users adapted the software to enable piracy.

The point of the service is to transform a consumer's music collection from something physical -- a bunch of songs stored on a machine -- into something virtual -- a set of titles that can be played wherever their owner wants to play them.

That transformation would set the stage for more services that can plug into consumers' virtual collections, Mediacode Chief Technical Officer Ian C. Rogers said. For example, services could pump songs securely into a collection or help users pick what to play.

One key to Lord and Rogers' vision is the emergence of standard technologies that enable services to work with each other automatically. That is happening, largely because Microsoft is promoting a set of building blocks for Web services.

Another key is convincing copyright holders to embrace this approach and plug their products into the mix. So far, the labels and Hollywood studios have followed a different muse, distributing music and movies online with electronic locks that don't work with virtual collections.

As a result, the Muse.Net service can't handle the locked song files sold by label-sanctioned music distributors such as Roxio Inc.'s Pressplay and FullAudio Corp. The hurdle isn't the technology, it's the restrictions imposed by the labels, said Jason Reindorp, group manager for Microsoft's Windows Digital Media Division.

Some of the labels have started to dip their toes into Web services, however. For example, three of the five major record companies let Ecast Inc. of San Francisco, an online music distributor, obtain song files and related information through standard Web tools, said Lee Shirani, an Ecast vice president.

The Muse.Net software turns a computer connected to the Internet into an online jukebox. Users with multiple computers can use the software to combine scattered song and video files into a single collection that can be played from any Internet-connected PC as well as some hand-held computers.

Unlike file-sharing software, the Muse.Net service -- which Mediacode sells for about $20 a year -- allows only one person at a time to access songs in an online collection. Nor is it designed to copy songs from one machine to another.

Rogers said Mediacode wants to stay in the labels' good graces, but he added, "We're not looking to do any big deals at the moment. One way or another, we're not going to be useful to them or really scary to them until we have critical mass."

About 150,000 people use Muse.Net, which was released commercially earlier this year.

Ted Cohen, a senior vice president at EMI Group's EMI Music, has seen Muse.Net and likes it. Unlike file-sharing software, he said, Muse.Net increases consumers' appreciation of music without decreasing their willingness to pay for it.

"I just think it does all the right things," he said. "It lets people extend the reach of their music experience without tripping over artists' rights or content owners' rights."

Lord has been immersed in online music since 1993, when he founded the Internet Underground Music Archive while an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz. IUMA gave little-known bands a virtual stage, letting them woo music fans by transmitting free songs through the Internet. Rogers, meanwhile, spent much of the 1990s working with the Beastie Boys' record label, Grand Royal, a pioneer in using downloadable music to promote bands.

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