It can be a nightmare for the legal online music companies to track down copyrights and negotiate permission for songs:
- When the world’s major media companies gave in to the idea of selling music over the Internet, it seemed to herald a sonic paradise, where every song ever recorded would be available to listen to and perhaps download, legally, with a few clicks and a small monthly fee.
But for the online services trying to get there — chief among them MusicNet, Pressplay and Listen.com — the road to paradise is proving to be more like an intellectual property labyrinth paved with administrative quicksand.
Even though two of the three major pay music services — MusicNet and Pressplay — are backed by recording companies, the record labels do not always seem to be sure what side they are on. Sometimes, they withhold popular new releases for fear digital distribution will harm sales of CD’s. Sometimes they appear to favor their own service over the others. (Listen.com is still trying to procure Bruce Springsteen’s new hit record, “The Rising,” from Sony Music Entertainment. It has been in stores for almost two months.
And the recording labels are only one of several interests with a say.
Concerns over piracy, money or unrelated contract disputes have prompted artists like Madonna and Radiohead to insist that their music not be distributed digitally. And even if the artist and the label are on board, the publisher who represents the writer of a song may not be. Sometimes it takes months to figure out who the publisher is, since there are more than 30,000 of them in the United States and their names are often not included on the CD.
….The recording companies have, in fact, begun coming around. Under pressure from Congress and a federal antitrust investigation — and a growing belief that a legal alternative to widespread online music swapping could actually strengthen sales — they are granting more rights. Both Pressplay and MusicNet say they will feature music from all five major labels by the end of this year.
Yet as the Internet music services approach the end of one negotiating marathon, they are discovering that they are only at the beginning of the race to stock their digital shelves.
The “B’s” for instance, look pretty bare without the Beatles, Garth Brooks and the Beach Boys. Their label, EMI, has so far not reached an agreement to distribute their work over the Internet. A label may not own the sound recording rights for imported CD’s, or those that they distribute for smaller labels. And a track that uses “samples” from other songs — as the majority of hip-hop recordings do — can require renegotiating royalty rates with dozens of copyright holders before it can be delivered digitally.
Larry Kenswil, the president of the eLabs division of Universal Music, said that obstacles to clearing the rights for samples will prevent the company from offering several songs when it begins selling tracks from its own catalog online this fall. “It’s a nightmare,” Mr. Kenswil said.
….Meanwhile, at the online music services, which are trying to fashion a business based on respecting the copyrights of all of the constituencies, some progress is being made.
“When we cleared David Bowie and Pink Floyd I was turning cartwheels,” John Jones, the chief of content acquisition for MusicNet, said one recent morning as he reviewed a list of 1,700 tracks that were set to go up on the service. It was an eclectic mix of songs from Al Green, Blind Melon, Crowded House, Roxy Music, the O’Jays and Kiri Te Kanawa, the soprano, performing “Greensleeves.”
“You can’t rest until everything is cleared,” Mr. Jones said. “They’re all fantastic to have. You want every recorded song.”