Apple Quarterly Earnings Lower Than Expected
Apple Quarterly Earnings Lower Than Expected

That Apple is negotiating with the major record labels for a digital music locker service isn't exactly news, as virtually every story written speculating about Apple's cloud music plans have centered in on that scenario.

Bloomberg today adds to the slow leak of details with a report that claims Apple's locker launch is slated for "midyear" and that one of the things the company would like users to be able to do with the new service is provide access to backup copies of previously purchased songs if originals versions are damaged or lost. In that respect it's almost identical to the music locker that Google is working on, as first reported by Billboard last year.

That's pretty much the definition of a music locker service, so the revelation isn't exactly staggering. The question yet to be answered is exactly how Apple proposes to do this.

Does Apple want to offer a "scan and match" type of service -- which simply scans the tracks in a users digital music library and matches them against a cloud-based server that all users have access to? Or does it want users to manually upload each track to the locker where it sits until needed? The former takes much less storage space. The latter takes more and is the tack taken today by early entrants to the market like mSpot and MP3Tunes.

Another question is whether access to this storage system would be free or paid. One possibility is that the digital locker would be part of Apple's MobileMe service, which currently costs $99 a year. Labels would almost certainly want at least a piece of that action, but Apple is reportedly considering making MobileMe free.

What Apple is trying to accomplish is to give users the ability to buy the rights to a song, not just an individual song file. Buying song files carries a limited amount of rights with it, such as it can only be transferred to so many devices, and users are out of luck if the track is deleted or lost in some fashion. Buying expanded rights to songs could eliminate these limitations. There's no fear of deleting or losing songs (so long as Apple's storage facilities don't break down). But again the question goes back to how.

The answer will have major affects on Apple's licensing discussions. Letting users upload copies of their own files may not require a license, a theory that companies like mSpot and MP3Tunes are currently testing. But that scenario still carries with it the rights limitations placed on the original file bought.

That's why it's more likely that Apple is pursuing a "scan and match" system that also incorporates some type of immediate storage option upon purchase. And that will most certainly require a new kind of license, which is likely why this process is taking so long for both Apple and Google to sort out.