Choruss was started by Griffin’s consulting firm OneHouse LLC and Warner Music Group as an experiment in innovative business models. The goal was to work with colleges and universities to find new ways for students to legally acquire music through blanket licenses. The three-year arrangement with Warner ended at the close of 2010, which Griffin says was always the plan.
But Choruss quickly ran into strong opposition. On the rights holders side, it was criticized as an attempt to erode the rights of songwriters and record labels. From the technology side came complaints that Choruss was a tax on students and a temporary approach to a long-term problem. Griffin counters that Choruss was always about voluntary, blanket licensing system in colleges. “In other words, it never sought to take rights away from a songwriter or a sound recording owner.”
Now Griffin, through OneHouse, is working on building a registry that clearly enumerates the rights of music used in the kind of service that Choruss had hoped to build. It would be the necessary underpinning to innovative business models, he says, and aligns with industry’s need to make music easier to legally acquire. “Our key task ahead of us is to make it faster, easier and simpler to pay for music in hopes that when it is faster, easier and simpler more people will pay.”
The Choruss experiment offered many lessons. For one, Griffin learned that a network license was not of any great interest to students if they were constricted only to the campus network. Instead, a license that crossed networks would be needed. “In other words, they don’t want a music service from, say, AT&T that ends when they’re not on the AT&T network,” he explains. Because about 80% of students live off campus, he estimates, it’s difficult to monetize just a campus network. “People want music services that traverse network borders, not respect them.”
Choruss also found that schools were split between licensing approaches. Half of schools opted for a site license approach (the school would pay a lump sum on behalf of all students) while the other half wanted students to decide individually whether or not to sign up. Both approaches to the voluntary system interested Choruss, Griffin says.
Although it was described as an experiment, Choruss was more than a research project. “We got quite far into it,” he says. On the content side, Griffin says all major rights holders supported Choruss and had either signed deals or were in the process of signing deals. On the technology side, Choruss was working with AudioGalaxy. Now a legal music service, Audiogalaxy was a P2P service in its previous life and settled with the RIAA in 2002.
But Choruss ran into a wall that prevented a service from ever launching. “The big problem we ended up facing in Choruss is that we couldn’t find at least half the rights holders. Literally couldn’t find them. In other words, the National Music Publishers Association voted unanimously to support the Choruss project. We went to Harry Fox and they said, ‘Work with us and maybe we can find maybe 40% or something less than half of the rights holders.’ And that really isn’t enough. We need to be able to find more of them.”
Today the need for a registry strikes him as obvious. After all, the celestial jukebox represented by file-sharing services does not include just licensed, identifiable music. It contains all music whether or not the rights holders are known. But when Choruss began a registry was not seen as a necessary precursor. “Shouldn’t we have thought that in 2001?” Griffin now asks. “Haven’t we had numerous opportunities along the way for this to strike us as being clear?”
Now Griffin is convinced a registry is the first step to whatever blanket license models are eventually implemented. “It’s essential that these actuarial approaches be underpinned by good registries that can locate the owners and get them paid appropriately such that our process has the integrity it needs to command the respect of people who allocate money to us, whether they are judges or legislators or users who feel it’s appropriate to pay for music.”
To reach his new goal, Griffin is now working with the one organization he feels is uniquely positioned to create a registry: the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), the agency of the United Nation that promotes the worldwide protection of intellectual property. He believes the problem is beyond any one music company. “I wouldn’t expect Warner or any music company to write the checks that solve this problem.”
WIPO has advantages over other entities in creating a registry, he says. For one, would not run aground of the antitrust problems that would hinder music companies’ pursuit of a registry. And it has already created registries in other areas such as trademarks. Further, he believes that Francis Gurry, WIPO’s Director General, and C. Trevor Clarke, Assistant Director General, Culture and Creative Industries Sector, can get the job done. “I think they are both extraordinary people who have replaced less than extraordinary people who have preceded them, and who I think deserve our full support.
Looking back, Griffin has praise for Warner Music Group, which backed Choruss with the necessary funding. “I have nothing but the best of things to say about the Warner people. I say that because they are so supportive and have always been supportive. They want very much to see innovation in this area.”
Looking at the tasks ahead, he speaks with urgency. Technology will advance whether or not the music industry is ready to advance with it, he says, and paying for music will become a more voluntary act as each year gives way to newer technologies. “It’s high time we move quickly on it, because the world doesn’t wait. It moves forward.”