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US students, alumni to get legal P2P

The beginning of the end of the file-sharing wars?

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Exclusive US colleges and their alumni may be offered the right to P2P file-sharing under one of the most radical copyright reforms in a hundred years, The Register has learned.

The amnesty would be part of a "covenant not to sue", covered by a collective licence that offers the right to exchange major label repertory over a participating college's campus network. Rights holders would be compensated from a pot of money drawn from students' tuition fees.

Today, many US universities participate in a compulsory Napster or Rhapsody program; these only offer time-limited DRM-encumbered songs, though, and students are still liable for prosecution by the RIAA or its biggest members. Unexpectedly, the deal would extend outside the campus network to college alumni, too.

However, the proposals, which are still at the planning stage, have already drawn concern from publishers and smaller labels. Digital deals, and specifically collective licensing deals proposed by major labels typically offer songwriters little or no compensation, and leave the burgeoning independent sector as an afterthought.

An even greater concern is that a "covenant not to sue" would destroy the market for innovative business models built on collective licence. As explained last week, a one-time deal gives neither the music supplier nor the network operator any reason to innovate to produce more attractive services for music lovers.

And a venture that makes life harder for major label competitors, and that hampers rival initiatives, is correctly better described as a "shakedown" than a new era in music licensing.

The plan is the brainchild of copyright reform advocate and EFF Advisory Board member Jim Griffin, and has been the music business' worst-kept secrets. Warner Music Group hired Griffin to head up the initiative before the Midem show in January.

The former head of digital at Geffen Records, Griffin has long advocated that the music business must "monetize the anarchy" of music flows over digital networks, rather than attempt to control behavior or punish the public - or simply wish that digital networks went away.

(See our 2004 interview with Griffin here - or his 2000 testimony to Congress here. Since 2000, Griffin has favoured a voluntary approach.)

Griffin's group would resemble a joint venture, one not solely owned by Warner Music Group.

The View from the Indies

"The fact of Jim being hired by Warners is quite positive - he is of the new world," Alison Wenham, chief executive of indie label alliance AIM told us today.

But indies will wait and see just how inclusive the proposal is, when it finally emerges:

"It will either deliver a proprietary, bespoke solution or an industry solution. I don't think a proprietary solution will be quite as elegant and seamless as one designed for everyone."

"But if the major labels would like to continue to play the game to kick everyone else down, then all we've demonstrated is that we're no further down our neanderthal path. That's no solution to anyone," she added.

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