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Commentary: A lesson in "free" information

Regardless of the outcome of the copyright battle between Roxio and Gracenote, one lesson applies to all who supply free information to Internet sites: Don't assume that the data you provide will remain free.

    By Rob Batchelder, Gartner Analyst

    Regardless of the outcome of the copyright battle between Roxio and Gracenote, one lesson applies to all who supply free information to Internet sites: Don't assume that the data you provide will remain free unless that's clearly spelled out by the site's rules.

    By allowing users to augment a huge online database of music information and then claiming that information as its own property, Gracenote may have acted deceptively, but not necessarily illegally. On the other hand, the users who provided that information were naive if they expected Gracenote not to try to profit from the user-enhanced database.

    We are now entering what Gartner terms the era of the "personal media server." The convergence of MP3 technology with the PC and the Internet has enabled individuals to acquire music and store it in personal music repositories, which can feed various stationary and portable playing devices in the home, office or automobile.

    A database like Gracenote's is valuable because it provides a great deal of ancillary information about media--in this case, data about music recordings, such as the names of artists and songs--thus saving users the trouble of entering that information.

    See news story:
    Access denied: A copyright battle
    Furthermore--and this cannot be far from Gracenote's mind--it isn't just information about music recordings that can be entered in online databases. Music is just the beginning. Down the road, personal media servers will contain a variety of other media, such as movies and TV shows, which can also be cataloged online. One day, sites like Gracenote, if not Gracenote itself, will enable users to download information about all manner of media.

    The question is, who "owns" the data entered by users? Many users who helped build Gracenote's online database feel they should have unrestricted access to it. Gracenote, on the other hand, says since it created the technology that makes the online database possible, it owns the information and should be able to profit from those efforts.

    Without trying to predict how the courts will rule in Gracenote's lawsuit against Roxio, Gartner points out that since Gracenote had no explicit agreement granting its contributors any rights to the data they entered, those users would seem to have little claim on the resulting database. To put it in legal language, users who supplied information to Gracenote thinking that information would remain in the public domain assumed "terms of use" that did not exist. That is partly Gracenote's fault, because they could have been more forthright in this regard, but the contributors to their service trustingly played into their hands.

    (For related commentary on how to profit from your copyrighted material, see TechRepublic.com--free registration required.)

    Entire contents, Copyright ? 2001 Gartner, Inc. All rights reserved. The information contained herein represents Gartner's initial commentary and analysis and has been obtained from sources believed to be reliable. Positions taken are subject to change as more information becomes available and further analysis is undertaken. Gartner disclaims all warranties as to the accuracy, completeness or adequacy of the information. Gartner shall have no liability for errors, omissions or inadequacies in the information contained herein or for interpretations thereof.