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iTunes song-sample plan runs into music publishers

Trade group approaches Apple on the eve of Wednesday's media event to inform company publishing rights must be secured first.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
3 min read

A trade group representing music publishers and songwriters informed Apple on Tuesday that the company could not go ahead with a plan to extend the length of iTunes song samples without the publishers permission.

On Monday, CNET reported Apple had plans to boost the amount of time iTunes users would be given to sample a song from 30 seconds to 90 seconds. Sources with knowledge of the plan said Apple could announce the song samples as early as Wednesday during the company's media event in San Francisco. Apple had already reached agreements to extend song samples with the four major labels after first contacting most of them last week, according to multiple sources close to the negotiations.

It is unclear what the exact reasons were for Apple not rolling out the new samples. An Apple spokesman declined to comment. But it is certain that the National Music Publishers Association contacted Apple to inform managers there that Apple needed to negotiate with publishers before launching the new samples.

"We believe that a license is necessary and conversations must occur before song samples are extended," Jay Rosenthal, the NMPA's general counsel told CNET on Wednesday.

Did Apple forget about publishers?
The events leading up to Apple's media event aren't totally clear, but those on the music publishing side say Apple never approached them about cutting a deal. Rosenthal confirmed that as of Tuesday, Apple had not spoken to anyone at the NMPA. David Israelite, president and CEO of the NMPA, which represents more than 800 music publishers and songwriters, confirmed that Apple had not struck a deal with the NMPA.

Israelite did not offer details but did say: "We have not raised any substantive objection to the concept [of longer song samples] and look forward to a productive discussion with Apple if they wish to pursue this."

Industry sources say the NMPA and others in the music sector were miffed after reading CNET's story. Israelite, they say, e-mailed some of the major labels to determine if Apple indeed planned on extending song samples, industry insiders said. When Israelite was told that the answer was yes, he informed the labels that the NMPA had received an outside legal opinion that Apple couldn't make such an offer without the publishers' ok.

Music insiders say said there's no question about what Apple should have done.

One source on the music publishing side said Apple execs showed bad form by not going to the publishers when they approached the labels. The source said some in the publishing sector felt Apple tried to "jam" them in order in order to get its way.

So, as of now, Apple has agreements in place with the top labels to offer longer song samples. But before it can offer them, it must hammer out a deal with the publishers fight it out over the issue in court, or walk away.

Striking licensing deals with thousands of publishers is no easy feat.

Not all of them belong to big trade groups or have large representation. Sometimes, just finding a rights holder in order to negotiate takes a great deal of effort. The process has been a sore spot for many digital music services.

As for Apple, song samples could be an important way to stimulate music sales, and help the company improve the music discovery experience on iTunes.

Researchers have said that digital music stores can boost sales if they increase the size of song samples. Right now, iTunes, Amazon, and most download stores offer 30-second samples, but professors at Robert Morris University say that their research indicates that allowing music consumers to hear 60 seconds of a song prompts such consumers to dig into their wallets.