The recent announcement from Apple about its iCloud service was met with the usual rapture and admiration. The record labels according to the New York Post have been paid some $150 million to license the service while Amazon and Google felt compelled to launch their services with no licenses at all. Of course iTunes has been placed on a pedestal; it represents something like 85% of global digital revenues to the record companies. Just as MTV used, in the analogue era, to be the record companies’ best friend until they started running scared of the power they had given them, so Apple today has been elevated to a privileged, protected prime position which (regardless of the alliteration) offers it similarly low levels of competition. This apparently anti-competitive allegiance to one company promoted to the status of market maker, seems to have become a defining characteristic of what it is to be a major music company today. This model, that looks a lot like “control or be controlled”, seems to fit traditional record businesses ways of working.
But haven’t they just scored a huge own-goal in issuing these $150 million worth of licenses for the iCloud service? The licenses are presumably in order to allow Apple to scan a customer’s hard drive, identify what music files they have and then allow Apple to enable for streaming to a portable or mobile device, a copy of those music files via their digital iCloud locker. This provides a great competitive advantage over Amazon, Google and other digital locker services that require the end user to upload all their music to their locker before they can stream it. And therein surely lies the own-goal… When Apple scans a consumer’s hard drive, there is absolutely nothing to distinguish a file that has been ripped from a CD owned by the consumer and a file that may have been ripped from another users CD and subsequently accessed by downloading it via for example Bit Torrent or the Gnutella network. So when Apple does its scan and adds all your music to your locker, under license from the labels and the music publishers and for the modest annual fee of $25 – haven’t they just legitimised your entire collection regardless of whether you paid for it or not? And by the way, since your $25 is an annual subscription, haven’t they just done that going forward for whatever else might find its way onto your hard drive for the next twelve months too?
This looks like a file sharing amnesty via the back door. Unless perhaps Apple intends to restrict the files you can upload to ones that have been ripped by you on your copy of iTunes? Details of the service have yet to emerge properly. Are we suddenly going to find that the familiar Apple walled-garden has just added another few feet of barbed wire to its walls because, by the way, Apple has still been rather coy about what kinds of devices you will be able to stream to from its digital lockers, but we can only presume they will be Apple devices not Android ones…
Based on the damages of $75 trillion that the RIAA sought to claim from Limewire – or even the $1bn or so they eventually settled for, it does looks as if Apple’s friends in the music industry gave the “Great Turtlenecked One” (as The Economist recently dubbed him) an incredibly heavily discounted rate on monetizing all P2P in the US market for at least for the next twelve months. Is that really what just happened?