Doc / Music
/ Proposal for a Music Coop on the Web
- See also:
- PenguinSong.net -- the coop
itself, currently in an incipient state.
-- the most recent version of this document.
There are two general types of ``change-the-world'' proposals:
- ``First we change the world'' and we'll be able to do The Right
Thing and everything will be wonderful. This type is invariably
an exercise in futility.
- ``First we do The Right Thing and if it catches on it might
just change the world.'' The current proposal is of this type.
I had a great idea a few years ago, of the first sort: if one could
establish that transferring a music file over the network was a
performance, then royalties could be collected by ISP's and distributed by
BMI and ASCAP. Piracy would vanish because it would cost no more to
download a fresh file than to copy an old one -- less, because you
wouldn't have to store the file.
Since then disk prices have been declining at a steady 50%/year, and a
network transfer has been legally declared to be a copy rather than a
performance. Fair use is on the ropes legally, because the recording
industry is trying to get a fee for every copy you make, even if
it's only for your own personal use, like copying a song from a CD to an
At the same time, peer-to-peer copying systems like Napster, Gnutella, and
Freenet make it inevitable that any attempt to extract such payments will
be widely (if illegally) bypassed, and there is no sign of a workable
micropayment system in sight. These two facts leave the nagging question
of how songwriters, composers, and performers are going to get paid,
especially if they aren't signed up with a big label that will negotiate
big-money deals with Napster and the like.
The system is broken
There are some serious problems with the music industry today:
- It heavily favors large publishing companies that pump major
advertising money into promoting a small set of performers. A few
lucky songwriters go along for the ride.
- It favors heavily-produced studio recordings over live performances,
and big, expensive, heavily-produced concerts over small gigs.
- The performers themselves are exploited, because for the most part
their performances are considered ``work for hire'' and the rights are
owned by the recording company.
- Listeners exist only to have as much money as possible extracted from
their pockets at every opportunity. As a result, fair use is under
attack because the recording companies (having failed to learn the
lesson of the DIVX pay-per-use DVD scheme) want to get paid for
every use. If they could force you to listen to an
advertisement at the beginning of every CD (the way you must at the
beginning of a DVD -- ever notice that you can't skip past that?) they
- The publishing companies have almost total control over who can listen
to what, and under what circumstances. Copyrighted music not owned by
the publishers is effectively unprotected (Napster only blocks songs
that the publishers complain about). Music and performers that can't
be easily exploited don't get heard.
We're going to fix that.
- Songwriters, composers, and performers get paid fairly. Nobody gets
exploited, and nobody makes obscene profits they haven't earned.
- Everybody's equal. If you have only one song on line, you still get
paid for downloads of that song.
- Parodies, melody re-use, sampling, and other creative re-use are
encouraged, and all contributors get paid according to their
- Fair use rights are respected: listeners can make copies for personal
use, and change file formats for their own convenience.
- Listeners' privacy is respected: nobody's downloads are tracked.
- Nothing ever goes out of print.
From the general principles above it's pretty easy to derive the obvious
structure: a musician's and songwriters' cooperative. There are basically
three sorts of ``members'': listeners, content providers, and server
operators. To be fair, even content providers should pay a subscription
fee if they want unlimited access to other peoples' work; this means that
everybody is equal. Of course, anyone whose content is any good will get
their fee back, and more, in royalties, but anyone can
contribute, even if they have just one performance they want to share.
It will probably not be necessary to charge everyone a
subscription fee at all; heavy users could be billed directly based on the
number of downloads they made in the previous month. Paid subscribers
might get freedom from ads, posting privileges, or some other benefit.
Even non-members would get a certain number of free downloads per month.
The general idea is to build a community of music lovers --
listeners and providers -- in which a combination of community spirit and
both social and financial incentives encourage people to download music
when they want it, upload new music when they make it, and pass
links rather than copies to their friends.
- Content providers -- songwriters, composers, and performers -- get paid
a fair, fixed royalty for their share of every copy sent over the net.
Publishers also get paid, as in the current BMI system, in addition
to the songwriters -- in many cases songwriters are
self-published. Recording companies will be paid only for copies of
the performances they recorded.
- Musical works are put into the system only by the rights-holders
[unless there's a compulsory licensing system for single downloads;
right now there isn't]. Once a work is in the system, however, any
performer can add a cover, secure in the knowledge that the
rights-holders will be paid. There should be no reason not to add
recordings of live performances; it's up to the performers themselves.
- Parodies, melody re-use, sampling, and other creative re-use are
encouraged; royalties will be divided up fairly among the
contributors to derivative works.
- Regular listeners pay a flat monthly subscription for unlimited access,
and so have no incentive to pass copies to their friends, who can
download the music for themselves. Non-subscribers get limited access,
but they get something, again so that there is no reason not
to pass a URL instead of a copy.
- Fair-use rights are respected. Once a copy has been downloaded, the
listener can copy it onto any medium, convert it into any convenient
format, and even pass a copy to a friend (but of course it uses less
bandwidth to just pass a URL). A standard "e-mail a link to this song"
button will make it easy to do the ``right thing''. Statistics will be
kept, so listeners will be doing their favorite groups a favor by
- Listeners' privacy is respected. Regular listeners' downloads don't
have to be tracked; subscriptions and other revenues go into the pot,
and royalties are paid according to the number of hits, not who the
hits came from. Tracking is done at the server side, and micropayments
are not required. Even if listeners pay per download, it's not
necessary to keep track of what they listen to: everything's
the same price.
- Everybody's opinions are respected: listener and peer ratings, reviews,
annotations, and comments are part of the system. (Comments, unlike
downloads, are of course always attributed.) Naturally, the
ability to contribute to this system is one of the main rights reserved
to members. Non-members get to express their opinions only through the
- Operators of caching servers get a cut, and their users get faster
downloads. Everybody wins.
- Open formats (e.g. Ogg Vorbis) and
open-source software will be used. ``Copy protection'' (AKA
fair-use-prevention) will not. (A logo is available to
indicate freedom from DRM (digital rights management) technology.)
- Every recorded performance (track) will have a unique ``home page''
containing all the information available about that particular
recording, including links to rights-holders, other versions, ratings,
comments, and so on.
Implementation: Technical Details
- The system will be structured as a distributed network of archive
servers and caches. Every ``object'' will have multiple locations on
the network, ensuring that no single point of failure exists. I have
in mind something like CPAN or the
system of open-source mirror sites.
- As in SourceForge, every provider
gets their own subdomain. Most of these will be virtually-hosted, but
having them potentially separable makes it easy to scale the network.
This also encourages diversity -- every group's site can look totally
different. Groups will have mailing lists for their fans, and access
to the webcasting system.
- Every subscriber gets their own e-mail alias and a home page they can
customize. If they write a song and upload it, they get paid just like
- Any member will be allowed to set up a webcast "show"; show providers
(DJ's) will be able to string their shows together into "channels",
working out a schedule among themselves. Webcasts, unlike downloads,
are considered performances and royalties are paid via BMI, ASCAP,
- The system will include listener ratings, reviews, and peer ratings
(performers rating other performers; listeners rating other
listeners). For ratings, a system similar to that of Advogato will be used.
- Sound files will always include both an ISRC (a unique
code identifying a recorded track) and the ``home'' URL of the track.
The home URL of a track is, not the URL of the sound file itself, but
the URL of the HTML web page that contains complete information for
that particular recording. This is the URL one hands out when
referring a friend to a song -- it guarantees that the recipient will
get the music in the form most useful to them.
- Playback programs aware of the URL scheme will have a button that can
bring up the recording's ``home page'' in a browser. This will allow
for listener feedback; maybe even chat with the other people listening
to that song. If suitably configured they will also be able to display
lyrics or images, give access to a listeners' chat room, and so on.
Note that member authentication is a non-trivial problem because of the
way web security is implemented -- it's no fun to have to log in again and
again when flipping between sites. The most obvious technique is to
configure a player as a helper application, but not everyone will want, or
be able, to use a special player. In the fallback case (and during the
start-up phase), the system could use a single base URL for music
downloads and form-handling.
It turns out that you don't need anything special for
authentication as long as you can generate pages dynamically. Once a user
has been authenticated with any site in the coop, a session key can be
inserted into any URL's that lead to other sites in the system. This is
then used by the other site to continue the user's session.
Artist and user web pages don't need authentication, nor do track ``home
pages'' -- after all, you want anyone to be able to get this
information, including search engines. But any kind of interaction
(comments, downloading, etc.) does, so forms and music will be on the main
- Subscription fees, of course.
- Usage fees and licensing fees from non-members (e.g., downloads over
the monthly limit).
- Sales commissions and markup on items such as T-shirts, bumper
stickers, CD's, software packages, etc. Price for members will be high
enough to make a profit, but less than retail. Non-members pay retail.
- Members will be able to order custom CD-R's (``albums'') at roughly the
cost of a mechanical license per song, plus a constant for materials,
labor, shipping, and a commission (which of course goes into the pot --
this is a coop, after all). Non-members will also be able to
order custom disks, but will pay more.
- Software sales, including CD's with player software, and collections of
(open source) software tools for songwriters.
Note that when revenues exceed defined licensing fees plus expenses, the
excess is distributed as dividends -- this is a coop, after all. Ordinary
subscribers get a rebate; providers get a bonus.
An "album" is basically an encapsulated website. Typically it has a
"cover" page and an index page, both of which will typically be
implemented using, say, SVG (with JPEG/HTML/imagemap as fallback
alternatives), "liner notes" in HTML (lyrics and any other material the
writer thinks appropriate come along with the songs), and of course the
audio files. Possibly cross-platform software (Java, Squeak, Perl, ...).
The idea is for it to be in a mix of free formats so it will be useable by
anyone and always stay playable.
The right way to arrange things is for buying an album on an audio CD to
give the purchaser the right to freely access the web version, including
streaming the songs and downloading the Vorbis version. This neatly gets
around the "my-mp3" rights problem. (Of course, this only applies to
audio CD's bought through the coop; eliminating the middlemen keeps the
price down and maximizes the return to the artists and composers.)
Note that anyone can put together a web album of their favorite
music, maybe add their own notes or cover art, and even sell a CD version
on their coop web page. The appropriate people get paid. There will,
however, always be a place for ``traditional'' albums, which will be
produced by the the artists or a recording company, much as they are now,
and will be made in sufficient quantity so that they can be sold at retail
rather than just on the web. The difference will be noticable, both in
sound quality and production values.
Although coop members can freely download songs, we may be able to get
them to pay a little for the web version of a ``traditional'' album by
applying the cost to a discount on the CD version if they eventually
decide they want it (the audio quality is higher, so if they like the
music they'll eventually buy the CD).
- A work (musical or otherwise -- cover art, jacket copy, etc. are
included and their creators get royalties) can be put into the system
only by the members who own the rights. All rights-holders must agree
to the standard licensing terms.
- Royalties for broadcast, non-interactive streaming audio (webcasting)
are fixed and collected by BMI, etc. Naturally, they largely get
distributed back to the providers, but it takes longer and there's
likely to be some lossage. Nevertheless, this means that there should
be no problem webcasting live performances even if they contain covers
of works not in the coop system.
- There will have to be restrictions on the reuse of covers of non-coop
songs, since their creators aren't part of the general licensing
agreement. There may also have to be restrictions on downloading, if
revenues aren't sufficient to pay the full amount of the mechanical
Membership Classes and Benefits
- unlimited access to webcasts (Internet radio)
- access only to one version of each work
- limited streaming audio (one stream at a time)
- read access to only the last N reviews/comments
- N free downloads/month; only one quality level (the worst). Any
downloads at all require (free) registration (or can be silently
tracked by cookie until the magic number is reached).
- less privacy, because the system has to track usage.
- Lots of ads
- limited set of preferences (colors, layouts, etc.)
- e-mail address, member home page
- family/household rate allows multiple simultaneous streams to one IP
address, and gives everyone in the family an e-mail address.
- unlimited(?) downloads; range of quality levels
- larger set of preferences -- members can design and share their own
color schemes, graphical themes, page layouts, player skins, etc.
- can post reviews/comments; view archives
- access to all versions of every piece [encourages live taping and
- collateral package (bumper sticker, T-shirt, etc.) on signup (3 months'
payment in advance).
- access to band/interest-group mailing lists
- dividend on purchases [it's a co-op, remember!]
- privacy -- log data discarded; optional freedom from (most) ads.
Ability to select ads by category.
- can put coop music, art, lyrics on their own web pages (in proper
format -- this involves HTML text that gives proper credit with
providers -- performers, composers, DJ's
- peer review (like Advogato, SourceForge)
- can run mailing lists
- can sell stuff (commission goes into the pot)
- receive royalties out of the pot
- free ads (up to some limit) on search pages
- ability to webcast live performances -- because it's a webcast and not
user-interactive, it can include non-coop works. [The coop pays
webcast royalties via BMI, ASCAP, etc. out of the pot; some of these
of course get back to the artists.]
[Note that cover art, text, etc. also gets credit. Something similar can
be arranged for graphic artists, writers, software developers, etc.]
archive and cache server operators
- open-source server software
- can put ads, links on page *footers* (other places on non-member pages)
- receive a small royalty per hit; kickback per member. This encourages
large providers to use a cache with coop instrumentation.
- get some free memberships with suitable hit rates or membership rates.
Any ISP or campus should qualify easily (passing the memberships to
their system administrators), but we don't want families getting a free
publishers and recording companies
- Are welcome to make their material available, but they and their
artists will be treated like any other publishers and performers --
everyone gets paid at the same rate. [it's a coop, remember!]
- In order to get their material into the system, they have to agree to
the general licensing terms.
- Recording companies only get paid for their recordings, but
they do get paid. This plus the publisher's share of songwriters'
royalties ensures that money will be available to produce commercial
- Publishers will be allowed to sell copies of coop recordings, but the
license fees will be considerably higher if use-restriction (DRM) is
imposed. (We can't put any restrictions on covers because of
compulsory licensing, but of course that works both ways.)
How to get started
One obvious question is ``how do you get it started?'' There are a couple
of plausible techniques:
- Start in small musical communities with the right traditions: filk,
folk, deadheads, jazz, sampling (share your samples), ... Encourage
members to sign up artists. Post on appropriate newsgroups. Encourage
members to use a coop link in their
- mine existing venues like mp3.com -- make
it easy for a group to have a presence in both.
- (advertise in / write articles for) magazines and websites
- tap into the Linux and open source communities (Linux Today, ...)
- productize the server software, the MDK (Music Development Kit, including
recording s/w, compression, uploading, webcasting, web-site templates,
version control, transcription, etc.), and a boxed software package for
listeners (price includes prepaid membership for, say, 3 months).
$Id: coop.html,v 1.7 2002/05/27 15:39:49 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <steve@theStarport.org>