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Yahoo's Ian Rogers calls for music standards on the Web

Ian Rogers, Yahoo's VP of Video and Media Applications, argues that now that DRM's dead, the Web needs open standards for labeling digital media files.

Ian Rogers, Yahoo's VP of Video and Media Applications, didn't get much chance to speak on the five-person panel I saw at Billboard Live. However, he gave a very interesting presentation at Aspen Live, a conference for music industry types sponsored by talent agency Creative Artists Agency (CAA), and he's paraphrased the talk in its entirety--complete with slides--on his blog.

The title slide from a recent presentation by Yahoo's Ian Rogers. Ian Rogers, Fistfulayen

Most of his arguments ring true to me: scarcity has been replaced by abundance, and spending incremental dollars on improving quality (while difficult and highly subjective) will provide much better returns in the long tail era than spending incremental dollars on marketing. In English: people are going to download the stuff their peers say is great, not the stuff that marketers push. He also namechecks Yngwie Malmsteen and quotes Neil Peart by way of Geddy Lee, suggesting he's a fellow refugee from the suburban 80s hard rock universe.

But I'm not sure I agree with his final point, in which argues for a new set of standards for labeling media files (the hAudio microformat), playlists (XSPF), and sharing user information and other data among social-networking and user-generated-content services (he offers no specific suggestions here). In essence, he's saying there need to be the types of open standards that enabled the Web, like HTTP and HTML, only for digital media.

The trouble with this argument is that the Web has been the exception, not the rule. Most "standards" are not predetermined by a committee or industry consortium and then miraculously adopted by all participants. Rather, most "standards" are proprietary technologies that become ubiquitous through end-user behavior.

Look at music. MP3 is considered the standard for compressed digital audio. But it's a patented technology, developed by private corporations (Fraunhofer, mostly), and licensed through the Motion Picture Experts' Group (MPEG). The Red Bookstandard for audio CDs was developed by Sony and Philips and must be licensed.

Companies dream about having a patented technology become a standard. That's why Microsoft, and Apple, and Sony, and everybody else on the technology side of digital music have fought so hard for so long to make their digital audio technologies ubiquitous. (It's also why companies play games with sitting on standards committees while quietly trying to achieve market ubiquity with their own proprietary alternatives...or trying to get their own patented technologies approved as a standard...or enthusiastically supporting open standards when the alternative is a de facto but proprietary standard owned by a competitor.)

It's hard to be the grump who argues against open standards, but in this case I'm not sure who would create these standards for digital media, or who would listen once they were created. Unfortunately, that means a harder landscape for content owners: they might have to pay attention as competing formats emerge for these needs, and bet on a winner based on actual user behavior.

Whether you agree with his point about standards or not, the rest of the speech is great and well worth a read.