Doc / Music / Proposal for a Music Coop on the Web

See also: -- the coop itself, currently in an incipient state. -- the most recent version of this document.


Reality Check

There are two general types of ``change-the-world'' proposals:

  1. ``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.
  2. ``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 MP3 player.

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:

We're going to fix that.

The Dream

The Proposal

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.

General Principles

Implementation: Technical Details

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 site.

Revenue Sources

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).

Legal Points

Membership Classes and Benefits


members (subscribers)

providers -- performers, composers, DJ's

[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

publishers and recording companies

How to get started

One obvious question is ``how do you get it started?'' There are a couple of plausible techniques:

$Id: coop.html,v 1.7 2002/05/27 15:39:49 steve Exp $
Stephen R. Savitzky <>