Over at Techdirt, I note a development that I don’t think has gotten nearly as much attention as it should:
Imeem, a social networking site that was in the recording industry's crosshairs earlier this year for allowing file-sharing on its network, has pulled off an impressive feat. This summer it settled its lawsuit with Warner Music by promising to give Warner a cut of advertising revenues from the site. Now the Wall Street Journal is reporting that it’s signed similar deals with all four major labels, meaning that Imeem is now the first website whose users have the music industry's blessing to share music for free. What's especially striking about this is that for the last decade, the fundamental principle of the labels' business strategy is that sharing music without paying for it is stealing. They drove Napster, AudioGalaxy, Grokster, Kazaa, and other peer-to-peer file-sharing services out of business on that basis. As we pointed out way back in 2000, all this accomplished was to drive file-sharing underground where the recording industry couldn't get a cut of the profits. Had they approached Napster in 2000 the way they approached Imeem this year, they could have been collecting ad revenue from every file-sharing transaction over the last seven years. Instead, they wasted a lot of money on lawsuits, angered a lot of their customers, and ultimately still had to concede that music sharing might be OK as long as they get a cut. The only significant difference between Napster and Imeem is that Imeem only allows you to play music on its website, whereas Napster allowed you to download songs to your hard drive. But this isn't as big of a difference as it might appear at first glance. The Imeem website doesn't provide a "download" button, but there's no DRM involved, and it's quite easy to download music files from Imeem using third-party tools. And because Imeem's site doesn't use DRM, Imeem downloading tools are probably legal under the DMCA. So what we have here is the de facto legalization of Napster-like sites, as long as the record labels get a cut of the advertising revenue. It's an exciting development, albeit one that should have happened seven years ago.
This was largely reported as a run-of-the-mill business story by the tech press. But I think it’s much bigger than that. Between this and the swift abandonment of music DRM, I think 2007 will be seen as the real turning point for online music.