Before it was even available as a prototype alpha release -- released this past Saturday (Oct. 10) -- Aurous was causing music industry stakeholders to squint their eyes at yet another startup with its gaze fixed on their content.
The app has been called the Popcorn Time of music (not intended as a compliment), garnered pre-emptive ire from the for-profit piracy watchdog Rightscorp, and is said to be under scrutiny by the likes of the RIAA. The fundamentals of how the app works, however -- essentially, where are they getting their music -- have been fuzzy at best.
In an interview with Billboard, Aurous developer Andrew Sampson explains that his app does not allow its users to stream music directly from largely illegal filesharing sites which use the BitTorrent protocol. Rather, Aurous is building an internal database of links to content, whether a YouTube video or a SoundCloud upload or one of the other 120 public APIs Sampson has integrated into his app. From there, search results are served to its users using the BitTorrent protocol in order to deliver those results faster -- much like Spotify did with its content when it first launched (no longer, however). Music served to users through publicly available APIs, a well-worn path taken most recently by the now-defunct Music Messenger, which voluntarily shut down shortly after launching due to label pressure. Asked about a potential cease-and-desist, Sampson says he would be... less than receptive.
The question of whether or not industry regulators and watchdogs are willing to let this new app serve fans their content without even speaking to them remains to be answered, though past attempts point to that answer being probably not.
In a chat with Billboard following an exhausting launch weekend, Sampson explains the structure and strategy behind Aurous.
Billboard: So at the most fundamental level, how does Aurous work?
Andrew Sampson: At the most fundamental level, it's a music player like any other. What stands out is that it can take advantage of other existing platforms and piggyback off those, and integrated those into platform.
What does that entail?
You have YouTube, Spotify playlists, Apple Music playlists -- the end goal, once we're out of alpha, is to put those playlists into our app, and it'll do the rest of the work. So you can listen from anywhere that you have a playlist.
What's the "highway" for that?
We rely on third-party APIs for a lot of our content. But we don't want to hit those every time we need a search result. So we go to other sites that offer up ways to search for music, and put that on one place in our network, which uses BitTorrent, without having to go back to the Internet for those search results.
Is this Popcorn Time for music?
That's a misconception. I'd refer to it as a player of players. You can play content that you already own -- we use licensed content APIs for that. We use BitTorrent only as a means to save bandwidth for the users, so we're not overloading other sites.
And what about providing access to stream pre-release or bootlegged music?
If someone was to upload to one of those sites that we get content from, then it would show up in our search results. It's like how Google works; we have crawlers that go across the internet to find files and index them. We have a very nice search engine.
That's something that major labels won't stand for.
We're pulling content from sources that are licensed. From a legal standpoint, what we're doing is okay. All files are streamed from legitimate sources -- we don't host anything. We only share chached results over peer-to-peer.
If you were to receive a cease-and-desist, what would your reaction be?
Ignore it. If someone asked us to shut down our service over one song, we wouldn't. If someone were to approach us about a pre-release album being available, we would be obliged to help them remove that.
What made you begin work on it?
The unreliability of other existing platforms. Pandora one weekend refused to load songs while I was on a road strip. So I switched to Spotify and they served me ads I wasn't interested in.
How long ago was that?
My prototype was completed about a year ago.
That's not that long of a turnaround. What problems did you run into when you were developing it?
Reliability with share data that allows us to search millions of websites at once. And two, share all that data that's being collected by the internal search engine with every other Aurous user. It's basically a CDN for search results from APIs... that was the biggest undertaking.
How will it pay rights holders? Are you planning on securing licensing deals?
Not at this moment. Considering our primary focus is for it to be an offline music player -- the search functionality is just one feature, and not a primary feature. We built it for content that's already on your device. We don't plan on going after licensing deals, we use those third party APIs, so we would just be re-licensing that data.
How will it avoid serving up pre-release music?
We would help apply filters to mitigate that off our network. But the Aurous network is only one search engine within the Aurous app. The Aurous network uses those public APIs, but an end-user can switch to a search engine, which we have no control over. [Here, Sampson is, presumably, referring to Aurous' customization options for advanced users of the app, as outlined on their website.]
Music Messenger used publicly available APIs following a significant investment -- and is no longer available.
To that I have to say: Major labels need to adopt to new standards. They are free to use our content identification system, when it's released. We're integrating something called bit-tipping, so as you listen to songs you can tip artists with Bitcoin. We're adding the means for artists to get paid. We're not trying to undermine content creators. It's not like we're stealing the music.
So if you have music on your phone and use, for example, iTunes -- what's the advantage of Aurous?
We have a rich system for tagging your media files. iTunes on mobile lacks many of these features. And we offer the ability to edit audio files live. We're a lot smoother too; we can handle a lot more content than iTunes does, from what I can tell.
We aggregate content. So if somebody searches for a song on YouTube, and that song comes back, that song is now on our network. That link can be shared over the Aurous network, and not have to be re-searched.
The content is added as well?
The content isn't added, it's just a direct link to it. So if it's www.youtube.com, the link stays the same, the content comes from YouTube's server or one of the other 120 APIs we're using. We also have methods of increasing the audio quality.
When you step into a minefield, you can expect to get a little hurt. But we're not hosting anything, we're decentralized, similar to BitTorrent, so we can share data without hosting it. Nothing goes through our servers. Everything is a user request, initiated by the user. We're simply providing an interface.
You should anticipate some blowback.
There are a lot of sites saying we're the Popcorn Time of music. That's not accurate. We can play content from all around the web, and we use a BitTorrent-style technology to share links to content -- but not that actual content itself.
When do you expect to be up and running with version 1.0?
We expect to have a stable build in two or three months.