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Google shows off digital music service despite limits

Google unveils its Music Beta even though it lacks licensing agreements with record labels. In the meantime, users must download their music libraries to Google's servers to access their songs from other computers or devices.

May 11, 2011|By Alex Pham and Jessica Guynn, Los Angeles Times
  • Google product manager Paul Joyce discusses Music Beta at the companys developers conference in San Francisco.
Google product manager Paul Joyce discusses Music Beta at the companys… (David Paul Morris, Bloomberg )

Reporting from Los Angeles and San Francisco — Google Inc. is proceeding with plans for a digital music service despite not having secured licensing agreements with record labels or music publishers.

Google unveiled the free service, dubbed Music Beta, at a company event in San Francisco. It would let users upload their music library to Google's computers so they can stream their songs from any Web browser or Internet-connected cellphone running Google's Android operating system.

The service is currently by invitation only and is not yet widely available to the public, the Mountain View, Calif., search giant said.

Google, which announced its ambitions to enter the digital music market a year ago, has since struggled in its negotiations with labels and publishers. At a roundtable for reporters, Google's director of digital content for Android, Jaime Rosenberg, lashed out at several music companies that he declined to name, saying their deal terms were "unreasonable and unsustainable."

At the same time, Rosenberg said Google would push ahead with its talks with the labels and publishers to build a platform for distributing and selling music on Android phones and tablets.

"We are excited about where this could go," he said, emphasizing that Google would also pursue deals with independent labels and artists, such as those represented by Merlin, a London organization that represents 14,000 members, including Arcade Fire, Vampire Weekend and Adele.

A spokesman for Merlin, which negotiates digital music rights on behalf of its members, said the group does not have an agreement with Google.

Without licenses from artists and labels, Google is limited in what it can offer its users. One of the most obvious limitations is a requirement that users upload their music collections to Google's servers — a process that can take hours — before they can listen to their songs with another computer or device.

With the proper licenses, Google can simply scan a user's music collection and make note of the song titles before making those songs available within minutes. Striking deals with major labels such as Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, Warner Music Group and EMI Group would also allow Google to open a store for selling music downloads, as well as offer a subscription-based streaming service.

Amazon in March launched a similar, unlicensed service called Amazon Cloud Player. The Seattle online retailer also failed to get licenses from labels and publishers, prompting an angry response from Sony, which said in a statement, "We are disappointed that the locker service that Amazon is proposing is unlicensed by Sony Music, and we hope that Amazon will resolve the situation quickly by agreeing to a license with us. We are keeping all our legal options open." Amazon still has not reached agreements with labels and publishers.

Sony declined to comment on Google's Music Beta.

Google noted at its news conference that its service was "completely legal" because it is merely allowing people to access files they already own that are stored on Google's servers. In addition, users must click a box promising to upload only "lawfully acquired music."

Google also announced it will begin renting thousands of movies, including "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1" and the animated hit "Despicable Me" through its Android Market, Google's version of the Apple iTunes store.

alex.pham@latimes.com

jessica.guynn@latimes.com

Times staff writer Dawn C. Chmielewski contributed to this report.

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