MP3.com founder returns to music biz

Michael Robertson to launch new 88-cent music store, with no copying restrictions on songs.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
2 min read
Michael Robertson, the outspoken entrepreneur who helped set off the early digital music wars with his MP3.com site, said Wednesday that he is getting back in the online music business.

Robertson, now chief executive both of Linux software company Linspire and Net-calling service SIPphone, said he wanted to give consumers--particularly those who use Linux-based computers--a broader choice of stores. His service would set itself apart from others by providing music without any copy protection added, he said.

True to form, Robertson is launching a few barbs along with the new service, which will be unveiled at his Desktop Linux Summit conference in San Diego next week.

"One of the things that I am not a fan of is any monopoly," he said, citing particularly the popularity of Apple Computer's iTunes Music Store and iPod player. "I don't want to move to a world where every song or portable music player has a fruit on it. Particularly if you're on Linux, you're shut out."

The digital music market is already getting crowded, but Robertson said he's aiming to shake up a market that's settling into a fragmented state he doesn't like.

Today, online music purchasers have to make sure that they are buying from a store that's compatible with their MP3 player. Music from Microsoft's MSN Music store cannot be played directly on the iPod, for example.

By distributing songs only in open MP3 format, any music player will be able to play the music he sells, he said. Today, eMusic's subscription service is the only major competitor to distribute in unprotected MP3 format.

Robertson says he will open the service next week, with "hundreds of thousands" of songs from independent and unsigned artists already available at 88 cents apiece. He'll approach the major labels for access to their music, too--but it will be a tough sell. The big labels have adamantly opposed selling any songs online that are not wrapped in digital rights management technology.

MP3Tunes will also release a Linux-based "music appliance" that will help people access their music collections from other devices, Robertson said. He declined to give details on how that would work.

Robertson started the original MP3.com in mid-1997, when the digital music phenomenon was just beginning to hit the cultural radar. The company, which posted hundreds of thousands of song files, largely from unsigned artists, quickly became a rallying point for technology-minded music lovers hoping to overthrow the dominance of the major labels.

The company was ultimately sued by the major labels and music publishers for copyright infringement, and was sold to Universal Music Group after striking settlement deals that neared $200 million. News.com publisher CNET Networks now owns the MP3.com domain name and uses it for an unrelated business.