No DRM in Mr. Robertson's neighborhood

Child's play at MP3tunes

Desktop Summit There is a shallowness to Southern California culture that can make you question the authenticity of anything coming out of the place. The boobs are fake. The faces are fake. The water is fake - pumped in from far away reservoirs. The cities are filled with bland, repetitive strip malls loaded down with chain restaurants not local cuisine. Half of the people aren't even real people at all - they're actors.

This doesn't make So Cal a bad place. It just raises immediate questions about someone like Michael Robertson of Linspire, MP3.com and SIPphone fame. Can you trust the authenticity of this blond haired, laid back executive who was raised in Los Angeles and does business in San Diego? Can you trust the motives of his battles with the likes of Microsoft and the recording industry? Is this altruism, capitalism, entrepreneurism or greed? We sat down this week here at the Linspire-sponsored Desktop Summit to try and answer some of these questions and to talk to Robertson about his latest venture - a DRM-free online music shop called MP3tunes.

"I definitely would not down play that I am an entrepreneur, Robertson said. "When everyone is zigging, that's when you want to zag. I would not downplay that.

"But I am a businessman in a unique situation. I was 34 and had a $100m when we sold MP3.com to Vivendi (Universal in 2001). To me, you say, 'How can I make the world a better place?' I don't want to sound too much like an altruistic cheerleader. It's just that I have a nice car and a nice house and then what? Let's go impact the world some, so that is what we are trying to do."

Robertson's best known battle has been waged on the desktop where his Linspire - formerly Lindows - operating system is pitched as a competitor to Microsoft's Windows. The SIPphone venture is a VoIP attack against the slow-to-move telcos. And now with MP3tunes, Robertson is going up against the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America), Apple, Real and Microsoft.

The executive admits that some of these ventures have not taken off at quite the clip he had once hoped.

"As technologists, people like Register readers, our universe revolves around technology," he said. "We research our own technology and are comfortable around it. That's not the way the rest of the world works. It has been one of my frustrations. You have to have marketing, a channel and strong distribution. These things take time. (Linspire) has been an exercise in patience for me."

Still, Robertson holds out hope that Version 5.0 of Linspire - out in beta this week and shipping sometime in the first quarter - will finally win over more consumers.

Not making life easier, Robertson has just launched a new music store that doesn't have songs from any major artists, doesn't have the DRM infection demanded by the RIAA and doesn't have serious profit prospects.

"You don't do an online music store to make money," he said. "You can't even think about making money until you have a massive scale and even then it isn't a high margin business."

MP3tunes charges 88 cents a song or $8.88 per album and sends 65 cents per song or $6.50 per album back to the artists. Companies like Apple and Napster also manage just a few pennies per song sale from their online stores.

"But I think backing the MP3 format is the right thing to do for consumers," Robertson said. "Today, desktop Linux is locked out of almost all of the online music stores. That's because we don't support DRM, and I think DRM is the biggest threat to open source, no question about it."

Robertson points to past success with MP3.com as one reason he might be able to sway the major music labels once again. That store started out with no major artists and ended up being courted as a channel by the pigopolists. Should consumers flock to MP3tunes, the labels may realize that DRM hampers sales in a big way, according to Robertson.

"Most of the people call these things music stores, but they are more like rental shops," he said. "A company is telling you how you can use the music. You don't really own it. That is a bad idea for consumers and a bad idea for the industry.

"That's why I am getting back into this and stressing MP3s. Don't rent your music. Own it.

"We don't have U2. We don't have the major record labels. I know that. When I started MP3.com, I didn't have the major labels either."

Robertson expects the upcoming Supreme Court hearings on P2P file sharing to make or break the music industry's battle against consumers.

"If the Supreme Court sides with the lower courts, then even the most ardent DRM fan has to concede that file-sharing networks and by extension MP3 content on those networks will be part of our culture as far as the eye can see," he said. "I don't see how you can arrive at any other conclusion."

And if the labels win?

"That wouldn't help my position, but I still think you can convince (the labels) that the discussion is not about DRM. It's about making money."

So there you have it - a money-hungry, freedom fighter. A millionaire who holds meetings in a small room tucked away at the back of an equally small conference center. No handlers. No pomp.

Is the whole show authentic? Hard to tell. But it's fun to watch. ®

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