Will no-DRM mean more lawsuits?

After my most recent post on the RIAA and CD copying, I don’t want anyone to get the idea that I’m on an anti-record industry rant, but I have to wonder at all of the rainbows-and-kittens commentary on Sony’s reported move to offer non-DRM tracks. According to BusinessWeek, the label is going to start offering mp3 files with no digital-rights management restrictions, beginning with a Justin Timberlake promotion.

Will this be a noteworthy step, if it actually happens? Sure it will. Sony is one of the few remaining holdouts on offering non-DRM tracks. But before everyone gets all warm and fuzzy about the giant record labels, I’d just like to point out that they are still suing people for downloading and sharing music, and there are plenty more similar suits on the books. Does Sony’s move mean that the industry has suddenly turned over a new leaf, like Scrooge did in A Christmas Carol? Unlikely.

I would imagine the major labels are somewhat chastened by the fact that CD sales were down by 20 per cent or so this Christmas compared to the previous one, and down about 10 per cent for the year (or perhaps even more than that). But that doesn’t mean they are going to start hosting Limewire parties or joining the Electronic Frontier Foundation. In fact, I’m afraid it could actually lead to more lawsuits rather than fewer.

At least with DRM controls, the labels could convince themselves that their job was done, and let technology carry the bag. Now, the industry will have to confront the fact that all of the non-DRM tracks it releases into the wild will be untraceable and completely shareable. Will that convince them that they need to find new business models, or at least modify the existing ones? Perhaps. Or it might make them even more likely to launch a lawsuit.

The RIAA: Possibly right, still weasels

It’s been almost a week now, but the debate over a Washington Post story about the RIAA going after someone for copying a legally-acquired CD just won’t die. Why? Because regardless of what most of those writing about the issue are focusing on — namely, the WashPo reporter’s refusal to admit that he was wrong — the fact is that the record-industry lobby group is still trying to have its cake and eat it too. They’re crying crocodile tears about how unfair the Post story was, but they refuse to come right out and say that copying is legal under the “fair use” principle.

The background to this one is that the Post said the RIAA’s lawsuit was based in part on the idea that copying of any kind was illegal. Naturally, that got everyone up in arms — including yours truly. Shelley Powers posted a comment accusing me of getting it wrong, and noting that the actual brief in the case referred to copies that were shared using Kazaa. I replied that while that might be the case, the RIAA has made other statements, including those in a submission during a review of the DMCA, that suggest it sees copying as an infringement.

The RIAA’s Cary Sherman responded to the Washington Post writer during a debate on NPR that one of the statements I referred to — the comment by a record industry lawyer during the Jammie Thomas case that making even a single copy was still “stealing” — was based on a misunderstanding (although as far as I can tell this explanation has never been reported anywhere, so it’s hard to fault the Post writer for not knowing that). But the comments during the DMCA review have yet to be explained.

As Ars Technica describes, the submission talks pretty clearly about how making even a single backup copy is an “unauthorized use.” Cary Sherman may protest that the RIAA has never sued anyone for copying a legally-acquired CD, and he may suggest that they have no intention of doing so, but he still refused to say that doing so was actually legal — describing it as “too complicated” to make such a statement.

As Mike Masnick notes over at Techdirt, the RIAA may be correct on the Post story, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is still trying to weasel out of the central issue.

The Scoble mess and data portability

So Robert Scoble has his account suspended by Facebook for using an automated script to harvest his contacts and their email addresses (see my previous post), and all hell breaks loose. Scoble, whose account is later reinstated, is denounced for being a publicity-seeking limelight hog, and for using a script from Plaxo that is an egregious breach of Facebook’s terms of use (since it uses optical character recognition to grab email addresses, which the site keeps as image files). The end of the world? Hardly, as Mark Hopkins at Mashable points out.

In any case, some have sided with Scoble, because they feel Facebook should allow users to export their data, while others argue that the site can do whatever it wants, and when you sign the terms of use you effectively agree that you accept that. Whatever you think of Scoble and Plaxo’s script, however (which seems a little devious to me), there is an important issue at the centre of this Techmeme frenzy, as Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 and others have pointed out: Who owns your data?

In a post I came across this morning, Paul Buchheit (the guy who created Gmail) makes an interesting point, which is that many other services — including Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and LinkedIn — allow you to import your addresses from some other program or service. I just finished doing exactly that with Last.fm, and I’ve done it with countless other services as well, including (most recently) an aggregator called Spokeo.

So how come you can do that with every service except Facebook? That doesn’t seem right. The Data Portability Group has extended an invitation to the site to join their push for a single standard. Marc Canter thinks we need better access controls for our data, and Chris “Factory Joe” Messina thinks that we need to move away from using our email addresses as the core of our online identities, and move towards a URL-based system. One thing is for sure: this issue isn’t going to go away.

Facebook: Whose data is it anyway?

In his post about Facebook disabling his account, uber-blogger and Facebook tart Robert Scoble admits that he was doing something that breached the site’s terms of use — specifically, he was running a script that accessed the social network and “scraped” data from it. As a result, he got a letter from a Facebook minion telling him that his account had been disabled, asking him to describe his recent activity, and asking him to refrain from any such activity in the future.

(Scoble was apparently trying out a new Plaxo import feature that involves screen-scraping, according to this post from Mike Arrington at TechCrunch. I agree with Mike that Plaxo is to blame here just as much as Facebook).

It’s obvious why Facebook would have such a rule: scraping data using automatic scripts not only puts a load on the site’s servers, but gives potential competitors the ability to potentially suck out the entrails of the social network and move them somewhere else. The interesting part of this whole affair, of course, is that the entrails in question — the engine that makes Facebook such a hot property — are the contacts and information belonging to people like Scoble.

The big question here — which the Scobleizer has cleverly put himself at the centre of — is: Who does that data belong to? It might have been collected and organized in the way it has because of Facebook’s tools, and he obviously agreed to the terms of use that he has since broken, but there’s no question that the information itself should belong to Scoble (and the rest of us). So what rights should he have when it comes to removing that data from a site like Facebook? And who gets to decide?

The bottom line, I think, is that Facebook should make it easier for people to move their data from Facebook to somewhere else without scraping the site using bot-scripts. Whether Scoble’s symbolic gesture will help to push them in that direction remains to be seen.

Update: As Ian Betteridge points out in a comment here, at least some of the data that the Scobleizer is scraping belongs to the 5,000 or so people who added him as a friend. Should they have a say in what he does with it?

And now Scoble has been reinstated by Facebook, and has gotten lots of publicity for himself and Plaxo — but hopefully he has also gotten people thinking about who owns our data, and how we use it.

Calacanis: You have to be a “player”

Amid all the to-and-fro’ing on Techmeme about Twitter and its lack of a business model comes a post from Jason “Mahalo” Calacanis, in which he tells us the secret to building a business model in Silicon Valley. Is it a vision of where the market is going? No. Is it a compelling service with a unique value proposition? No. Is it a twist on some existing service that makes your offering a killer app? No. You have to be “a player.”

In a nutshell, Jason appears to be saying that certain people — such as Twitter founder and former Blogger co-founder Evan Williams — don’t have to have a business model, at least in the traditional sense that their company actually makes money. They just need to build traffic and users until they are so gigantic that someone either buys them or they can create a business based on their huge user base:

“Running a startup is NOT about revenue anymore–it’s about critical mass. It’s about scale. When you’re playing in the big leagues with unlimited access to capital you shouldn’t worry about revenue BEFORE you have critical mass.*

* Note: if you’re not a player like Ev, and you don’t have unlimited access to capital do not take this advice and focus on building revenue streams.”

So there you have it — Business 101 from Professor Calacanis. Is that the approach Jason is taking with Mahalo? If so, I wish him luck, and I hope that he has “unlimited access to capital,” which strikes me as a somewhat unlikely condition for anyone (except maybe Bill Gates) to find themselves in. In any case, there’s a refreshingly contrary opinion from Don MacAskill, founder of the successful image-sharing service SmugMug.com, in the comments on Jason’s post. Don says:

“I have unlimited access to capital, but I still focus on building my business first and my scale second. The “scale first, then find a business model” route only works as long as you’re in a bubble, like we are now. But if that bubble bursts before Twitter both gets to scale and finds their business model, they could be in big trouble.”

If I were Ev Williams, I would pay a little less attention to Jason, and a little more attention to Don. In other words, focus at least part of your energy on building a sustainable revenue model — or even the seeds of one — now. Don’t put it aside and hope that it will magically appear later. And don’t listen to your Uncle Jason when he tells you that you’re a “player” now, and so you don’t need a business model.

Radiohead: People still want an “object”

Radiohead front-man Thom Yorke still isn’t saying much about how many people downloaded the band’s “In Rainbows” digital release — except to say that the group has done quite well by it, thanks very much — but what he will say is that the idea of a Web-only album is “stark raving mad,” according to an interview with the BBC. Yorke says that people still want “an object” of some kind when they buy music:

“We didn’t want it to be a big announcement about ‘everything’s over except the internet, the internet’s the future’, ’cause that’s utter rubbish. And it’s really important to have an artefact as well, as they call it, an object.”

Is that true? I’m not so sure. I certainly don’t feel any compulsion to have a physical object when I buy music — if anything, I find it cumbersome and kind of a pain — and I bet there are lots of people like me. I think Thom might want to revisit his views on digital-only releases. As it stands, the In Rainbows move seems to have been primarily designed to shaft the traditional record labels, which Yorke has nothing but scorn for.

Pay for traffic: Incentive or distortion?

It may be a new year, but we’re still talking (well, some of us are anyway) about an old issue: namely, the idea of paying writers based on the traffic they get. The focus of the debate right now is Gawker, where Nick Denton has apparently started paying his bloggers based in part on how many views their posts get. This one has been around for awhile, but now it’s official thanks to a memo on (Gawker-owned) Valleywag.

It’s also something that has come up before, including about a year ago when ZDNet said that it had started paying its writers on the same basis, i.e. a salary combined with a bonus based on traffic (I wrote a post about it at the time). And there have been other occasions as well, including when Business 2.0 magazine — which was then being run by Owen Thomas, now better known as the senior editor of Valleywag — started compensating writers based on their blog traffic.

In his memo, Nick says something that is very true about the difference between blogs and traditional media. While digital media gives editors or publishers the ability to track and compensate based on traffic:

“At newspapers, a reporter’s reputation depends on the opinion of their editors, which can be fickle. Some people get on because they play the office politics well. Or simply because they’re more aggressive in lobbying for more prominent jobs, or pay increases.”

The key question, of course, is whether rewarding bloggers for traffic is a good thing or a bad thing. One argument is that “incentivizing” bloggers to boost their traffic encourages them to make their posts more sensational, and will lead to them writing about nothing but Britney Spears or whatever they think people will be looking for, instead of deep and thought-provoking posts about serious issues. This is similar to the argument about people writing just because they want to show up on Techmeme.

The opposite argument is that it’s good to give writers a stake in the success of their blogs, something that encourages them to take an interest in their community. Will that encourage them to “sell out?” Perhaps. But maybe it will also encourage them to respond to comments, link to others who are discussing the same issues, and so on. Even former Gawker editor Choire Sicha thinks it’s not such a bad idea.

The bottom line is that — as Scott Karp notes at Publishing 2.0 — rewarding writers based on traffic is both good and bad. In some cases it will make that writer more engaged, and in others it will simply encourage them to post on whatever cheap train wreck is going on around them, hoping for a quick traffic boost. But I think in the long run it is likely to make them more intimately involved in their blogs, and more interested in developing a relationship with their readers, and that’s a good thing.