As with any debate over the music industry's reaction to any kind of online advancement, the hubbub over the .music domain registry is rife with inaccuracies and confusion.
On Jan. 5, that ugly head again reared based on a letter sent by 15 national and international trade organizations to ICANN regarding concerns they have about the pending approval of a .music domain name.
The letter -- signed by representatives from A2IM, the RIAA, ASCAP, BMI SESAC, and others -- pointed out their objections to the current proposal for how such a domain could be acquired. They boil down to three points:
1. A .music domain could be obtained by a pirate source of music, making it easier to find and use
2. The application process for acquiring a .music domain lacks the transparency these elements of the music industry say they need to determine whether the applicant is a pirate service or not
3. The process for challenging any application is tilted against those raising objections.
The letter is not, contrary to published reports, an admonishment of the .music domain or an effort to scuttle its use.
"It could result in the wrong means of acquiring music," A2IM president Richard Bengloff told Billboard.biz at this week's MIDEM conference. "But on the flip side, it could generate more interest and more consumption of music."
Bengloff explained that the organizations that sent the letter want the ability to control who would be granted a .music domain and who would not, essentially making the "music community" the assigning entity. He said they would hire a third party to collect and review applications, granting them on a set of guidelines that they create. As you'd probably expect, those guidelines boil down to not allowing anyone offering unlicensed music for free to gain a .music stamp.
This is where the debate gets a little tricky. Not all online pirate sites are as black and white as, say, the Pirate Bay. There are all manner of new technologies and capabilities that exist in a grey area of legality, and several court cases are pending to help bring some clarity to the issue.
Take cloud streaming services. At MIDEM we heard a sharp debate about the appropriateness of the music locker service from mSpot. Users are able to upload music files they already own to an online locker from where they can stream them to Internet connected device.
Labels don't like the idea because they're not getting paid for that use. mSpot argues it's fair use as users already bought the file (or perhaps downloaded it illegally). If the RIAA and others have their way with the .music registry debate, they'd be able to deny mSpot the ability to register the URL www.mspot.music, even though there has yet to be any legal clarity over whether the service is in fact an infringing one or not.
And the "music community" Bengloff cites does not include organizations that could arguably be considered an interested party, such as DiMA or CEA and so on. Now few industries can split a hair more finely than the music industry when it comes to the applications of rights. So you can expect the digital crowd to pretty much blow a gasket if the music industry gets to police how .music domains was raised.
Bengloff did mention that organizations behind the letter would not immediately protest if they do not get the .music domain control they seek, so long as the community-based approach provides enough details on the companies who apply for it and the ability to have their voices heard if they don't approve of their intentions.
But this does raise an interesting topic: who exactly is the "music industry" these days? Yes, the labels, publishers, PROs, managers and so on have every right to claim ownership of that title. But if MIDEM taught us anything this year, it's that the startup music services and tech-minded music developers and hackers are an, if not the, important engine driving the future of this business. Shouldn't they -- or at the very least, their representatives -- have a voice in how the application of a technical online designation like .music can be applied?
Those who say no take the stance that they create the music. And that's a valid point of view. But music service and app developers are creators as well: They create the technology to bring fans to the music, to interact with the music, to help promote and sell the music. They are creators as well, and frankly are creating the missing link needed to reverse the creators' current malaise.
In that respect, the debate over the .music process is very much a microcosm of the "us vs. them" mentality applied to the tech vs. music space. Who actually owns the "idea" of music? That's not a question as easily answered as it once was.