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Industry leaders are no-shows at digital music conference

The big record labels may have lost a skirmish in the online music wars this week, simply by failing to field a full team.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
5 min read
The big record labels may have lost a skirmish in the online music wars this week, simply by failing to field a full team.

A conference dubbed The Future of Music by a young group representing artists, served as the first major debate forum in Washington, D.C., for the contentious policy issues that swirl around the music business.

These issues have been discussed ad nauseam at other conferences, online and in courts. But this week added two elements often missing. The conference was held by and on behalf of musicians themselves, whose voices often are lost in the debates between record and technology companies.

It also brought the debate to the capital, where policy-makers and regulators will be writing and interpreting many of the rules that shape the use and business of digital music sales. But with few exceptions, the major music labels took a pass on the event, as most industry representatives have on other technology-focused events, such as the annual MP3.com Summit.

In this case, their absence may have been particularly meaningful. The Future of Music symposium was attended by policy-makers, including influential figures such as Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and U.S. Copyright Office chief Marybeth Peters, as well as by other congressional and regulatory staffers whose opinions could be critical in the months and years to come.

The conference clearly brought together independent artists and many of those in the technology and legal community. But by the end of the event, those who oppose the big labels' moves to extend their control of copyrighted material online had won some important allies, or at least receptive ears, in Washington, including Hatch and Peters.

The record labels have long enjoyed almost unfettered access to policy-makers. But industry policy drives in the future may find the hands of their opponents strengthened partly by this week's work.

All ears tuned in to Hatch
The conference was held in Georgetown University's Gaston Hall, underneath high, elegantly carved ceilings and painted icons of the school's Jesuit history. Hatch, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, opened the symposium, urging record labels and technology companies to agree on the licensing issues that have kept most music from being widely distributed online.

Hatch is a musician and songwriter himself, and won applause after he talked about receiving his first royalty check--for $60--and told of another Utah musician who is supporting himself without major-label backing. The senator, who held a hearing on digital music issues last year, was visibly impatient that progress toward strong online music businesses has been delayed by disputes over licensing and copyright.

"I do not think it is any benefit for artists or fans to have all the new, wide distribution channels controlled by those who have controlled the old, narrower ones," Hatch said. "This is especially true if they achieve that control by leveraging their dominance...in an anti-competitive way to control the new, independent music services that are attempting to enhance the consumer's experience of music."

Though Hatch was received well by most of the artists and technology companies, the few representatives of major labels who were present criticized his tone. Some are worried that Hatch is leaning toward a "compulsory licensing" system, in which record labels would have no choice but to license their music.

"I don't think he understands all the issues," Ted Cohen, vice president of new media at EMI Recorded Music and the only label representative to sit on a panel, said later. "I think he needs to spend some more time sitting down with people from the industry and then make a studied decision on what needs to be done."

Another moment that took many by surprise came from Peters, who heads the office that will help set rules for Webcasting businesses and for subscription music services that the big labels and smaller technology companies alike want to create.

Late in the conference, the head of the influential U.S. Copyright Office told an audience that she doesn't believe that plans to "lock up" music and other copyrighted material through software encryption will work.

Peters said she isn't concerned about a new, controversial, industry-backed provision in copyright law, which makes it a criminal act to attempt to break through technological copyright controls. Critics worry that this will prevent traditional "fair use" of copyrighted material, such as in reviews, news articles or noncommercial works.

"I don't think people are going to lock (the content) up," Peters said. "I don't think the economics are there."

It was a simple statement, but one that hit at the heart of the business of "digital rights management," or the drive to find ways to keep copyrighted works from being pirated and distributed freely on Napster or other file-swapping services.

Security, Webcasting issues cause sparks
Other fireworks kept the conference from slipping into the rut that is often seen at conferences on much-discussed issues.

A panel discussion on the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) saw a series of rhetorical explosions from SDMI Chairman Leonardo Chiariglione, demonstrating the mix of humor and exasperation that has helped hold the fractious SDMI project together this long.

Chiariglione accused critics in the audience and on the panel of wanting to divide the world into "good technology" and "bad technology" and then hold an "Inquisition" that would root out anyone who had worked on the so-called bad technology. He stopped himself, looking around at the religious murals on the walls. "But maybe that's a bad example to use here," he said.

Challenged to prove that the major labels don't intend to lobby for SDMI content protection plans to be enacted into law, Chiariglione blew up. "That's a problem for you. Talk to your American Congress. I'm an Italian citizen!"

"But we are American citizens, and it worries us," replied Jack Moffitt, a programmer who is helping to develop Ogg Vorbis, an open-source competitor to the MP3 format.

Similar threads of skepticism toward the industry dotted the panels. During a discussion on Webcasting rules, independent musicians in the audience were asked if they trusted SoundExchange, the group created by the Recording Industry Association of America to collect and distribute royalty fees.

A moment of silence came, and then successive shouts from the audience: "Not me!" "Not me!" "Not me!"

Looking beyond the schedule
Many of the best moments came outside the official conference. Participants said the two-day conference served a critical role in bringing together people from different sides of the industry.

Scattered around some attendees' badges were homemade stickers reading "Pho," denoting membership in a lively email list dedicated to discussion of these issues. Many in that group met the night before the conference began, with close to 100 members taking over an unsuspecting Vietnamese restaurant in Arlington, Va. Discussions began that night and continued through the week, carrying over onto panels and into nearby bars.

"It was just amazing to see all these people in the same place," said Brian Zisk, who helped organize the event along with Future of Music Coalition Executive Director Jenny Toomey.