Limewire in the limelight

In Brighton at The Great Escape festival,  I had the interesting opportunity to interview Nathan Lovejoy from Limewire Networks Inc in New York.   Limewire, as you know, has 50 million users, is one of the longest running filesharing clients and sits on top of the opens source gnutella network.

They are also being sued by all the major record labels in the US in a case that has been running for two or three years now. Their key defence is “substantially non-infringing uses” ie: there are a lot of really cool things that you can do with our application that are entirely legal and that, gosh, we never thought anyone would use it for filesharing in an unauthorised way that might infringe someone else’s copyright. Oh and by the way – we have absolutely no idea what goes across our client – we simply make the software and hope people will pay us money for the upgrade to our super Pro version – but we really have no idea what people use us for.

Now Nathan Lovejoy, as his name suggests, is a very nice, smart and engaging gentleman. However, he is also not totally unaware of the British TV series of that name featuring, as Wikipedia puts it “a British antiques dealer based in East Anglia whose scruples are not always the highest”.

Sadly, disingenuous is a word that springs to mind.

But I’m not really interested in giving them a hard time. There are plenty of lawyers paid by dinosaurs out there to do that. After all if it wasn’t them it would be someone else – and they didn’t invent the gnutella network – someone else did that – they’ve just given it a reason to live. The key question is really, having established a user base of 50 million, and having a lawsuit that you would have thought they ought to be able to settle soon, what kind of value-creation can be generated here going forward? How do we avoid a repetition of the wasted experience and potential that was Napster?

In other words, never mind if they’ve been naughty boys (and girls but, actually, mostly it seems boys) in the past, is there anything here of value that can be preserved, learned, expanded upon or taken seriously from a business and creative perspective?

Now some would argue that they are the perfect interface to place over a network to which you had applied a blanket licence. So all the music could be freed up by the ISP having charged a small monthly licence fee – and then for the users Limewire could continue to feel like free. And this might be ok – if we could believe that ontop of that real money could then be made with so-called value added services – like recommendation, discovery, bundling etc. I want to be convinced of this, but so far I have yet to see anyone produce the economic model or financial case study to prove it.

So for the moment, as far asLimewire is concerned, the future, based on my interview with Nathan, would seem sadly to not hold much of value for their experiment. The main problem seems to be that the lawsuit prevents them from either admitting much or developing more interesting features. But they do have about 75 developers so may be they are beavering away as we speak inventing the future in an ingenious fashion. We can only hope so.

Because while they can talk creatively and constructively about contextual advertising and recommendations and discovery, the reality is that they can’t currently be seen to offer either since they profess to have no idea what’s going on across their application or the network is attaches too. Never mind the fact that Eric Garland’s Big Champagne has been monitoring and analysing the flow quite successfully for several years now.

So, nice and simple though the interface is, Limewire is going to have get its act together techicallly, legally and commercially pretty fast  if it’s going to convince any of us that it has some means of leading us all into a more enlightened and profitable future by monetising the behaviour, interests and passion of its 50 million music lover users.

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