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Choruss: legal file sharing on campus

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The plan to provide US students with compulsory flat-fee music finally has a name, it emerged this week. Choruss LLC will provide participating universities with a replacement for their current subscription services such as Rhapsody, and has the backing of the the EFF and the tacit support of the RIAA. That alone indicates the magnitude of the initiative. When have those two lobbying groups ever agreed on music policy?

This, the worst kept secret in the music business, leaked out in April, when Jim Griffin confirmed he had been engaged by Warner Music to seek deals that would help end the litigation strategy against students, and replace it with a steady pool of income for the rights holders. (Griffin has spent a decade campaigning to "monetize the anarchy" of digital music - see our 2004 interview).

So Choruss brings together the potential parties, then acts as a kind of clearing house for royalties. We understand that this has been the biggest challenge to date, and why so many other details are sketchy: A new royalty agency would be a de facto monopoly, and it would need to submit to the rules (and rates) set by the Library of Congress' Copyright Office, which currently sets the rates for cable, satellite, and internet radio, for example.

Although Choruss is being incubated at Warner Music, the plan is to spin the venture out as an independent nonprofit entity. Jim Griffin, the force behind the initiative, is President, with WMG's current Senior VP for Marketing & Strategy (and former Jupiter and Gartner analyst) Jack Foreman involved.

Griffin said universities had approached him last year, unhappy with the students' exposure to big-label infringement litigation, and with the service students were being opted into for DRM music. He then found a parent that would support exploration in the shape of Warner Music.

As with today's situation, subscription fees would be deducted from students' general fees. Participating universities would receive a pledge not to be sued by the RIAA or its members. But would students even notice?

While dealing with DMCA notices is a pain for the University networks - who would dearly love to banish BitTorrent software and 24x7 freetards from their networks - students have as much chance of feeling real RIAA pain today as they do of being struck by lightening. RIAA litigation causes lots of press, and gives professors a chance to pose as victims, but its "success" can be gauged by the number of unlicensed downloads - a number that continues to climb. So a "covenant not to sue" has little meaning for end users, who take their chances by the millions today.

The two other significant drawbacks are that a) there's no revenue for software developers or network innovators to create a better mousetrap, and b) that the end "users" aren't actually consumers ... or "users" of any Chorus LLC software or service. Because there won't be any. So students would continue to take their chances on the Darknets, using torrent trackers and existing P2P services.

This won't exactly encourage innovation. Today's bandwidth-hogging applications (designed with the RIAA in mind) would no longer be necessary in a lawsuit-free environment. Better software for next-generation music sharing would naturally take the place of LimeWire and BitTorrent - these could permit caching, for example. So without replacements, networks would continue to support applications that would continue to cause havoc - a bizarre state of affairs, and one in which the cat-and-mouse game of traffic shaping and evasion would continue. That's like imposing a curfew long after the war is over and the bombing has stopped.

Choruss' ambition to be a digital-rights clearing house and set a de facto rate for songwriters is also unlikely to meet with much enthusiasm from representatives of songwriters and composers. A rate that suits the big record companies is unlikely to suit the rest of the industry.

Is Choruss-on-campus a model that the rest of us can live with? Hardly, since what makes it attractive to universities is the very same factor that repels others: Students are opted in, and money is extracted from their fees, without any choice. Outside of North Korea, there's no chance of opting the population into a new taxation regime.

But as a one-off solution for students, Choruss has to be an improvement on today's stalemate. Who but the mentally ill would want to continue to wage a war that is no longer necessary? ®

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