MP3.com on Tuesday said it would make its extensive online music database and streaming technology available for free to developers, letting rivals tap into its hard-won music locker service.
The move effectively gives rivals access to music rights bought by MP3.com for some $150 million in lawsuit settlements with the record industry. MP3.com said it hopes the move will jump-start online music innovation.
Derrick Oien, vice president of operations, said the company's development effort is "in the spirit of open-source" projects but slightly different in that participants gain access to its extensive database of CDs.
The announcement comes as MP3.com is backing a new developer's network, dubbed MP3DN, to create new technology for commercial online music distribution.
Many online music companies have expressed frustration with the progress of the record industry-backed Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which some blame for stymieing new online music technologies and hammering Net music start-ups with layoffs and shutdowns.
The group is charged with creating standards for music distribution that incorporate technology for protecting the copyrights of musicians and record companies. But SDMI has missed key deadlines, most notably for creating technology that would allow digital music to be heard via portable music players.
Companies aren't the only ones that say they are frustrated: At a recent industry conference, some lawmakers suggested labels must move quickly or face potential legislation to open the commercial Net music market.
Representatives from SDMI could not immediately be reached for comment.
Analysts praised MP3.com's efforts to push the Net music technology forward but noted that the company faces a formidable task.
"It's hard to foment a grassroots developer movement," said Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Aram Sinnreich. "It's definitely a start, but it takes a long time for open-source projects to percolate through the developer community...Look at Netscape. It took years for them to see anything substantial" out of the Mozilla open-source browser effort.
MP3.com on Tuesday said it would make its Beam-It technology available for free to developers.
The Beam-It API (application programming interface), which is the backbone of MP3.com's controversial My.MP3.com music locker service, lets people access their music collections online without having to encode and store the tracks themselves. The company last year settled copyright lawsuits over the service, clearing the way for My.MP3.com's commercial launch.
Web developers who take advantage of the offer could create their own online music locker services without paying any licensing fees, said MP3.com's Oien. In addition, consumer electronics companies could create devices, such as portable MP3 players, that tap into MP3.com's online database.
Oien said the MP3DN does not pose a challenge to SDMI.
"We have a very strong relationship with the labels following the resolution of the lawsuits," he said. "SDMI has not entered into our conversations at all."
He said MP3.com will limit its work with developers of portable music players and wireless devices pending the adoption of SDMI standards on such devices.
MP3.com unveiled its developers network Jan. 4, along with one of the first fruits of its collaboration with broadband application provider Panja. Panja produces a device that enables music fans to stream MP3 content from the Internet without using a PC connection.
Oien said the developers network plans to announce "new significant partners" soon. He would not say how many developers the network has signed up or name any other participants.
In addition to the Beam-It API, MP3.com offers an Instant Listening API, allowing CD buyers immediate access to music via streaming once they purchase a CD.
Other APIs planned include wireless applications, an uploading tool for bands to post recordings online, a database of CD-track titles, and XML (Extensible Markup Language) extensions.
Sinnreich said giving away Beam-It makes sense for MP3.com, despite the apparent cost.
He said the company gets three things by going open source: It helps MP3.com build a reputation for being forward-thinking; it creates a chance for the company to make its product ubiquitous and to sell in premium services at a later date; and it could broadly establish consumer practices that will make it more difficult for a court to step in and block the service over copyright concerns.
"Beam-It is a really important concept," he said. "Remote file management--being able to edit and access your music from anywhere--is going to be a key feature" for Net music distribution.