Unleashing the Creativity of Music App Developers

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The other night I was watching Copyright Criminals, a documentary new to Hulu about hip hop producers' legal trials and tribulations. Beyond being an excellent tour through mid-80s rap, the film argues that the rights regime wrapped around music is FUBAR. And it's so damaged because it never anticipated the way people think about music in an age of infinite and cheap reproducibility.

That's probably not news to you, but I hadn't thought of the implications for developers of music applications. They are likely to be tripped up by the same rights problems that landed De La Soul in court unless someone figures out how to enable innovation legally.

The Echo Nest is one company working on the problem. They described their approach in a talk at the Berkman Center for the Internet and Society at Harvard this week. I spoke with their CEO Jim Lucchese.

The company has a database not unlike Pandora's, Lucchese said, but it's created algorithmically, not by musicians. They also monitor blogs and Tweets for mentions of bands and songs. This allows them to amass data about millions of songs.

Which is nice, but it's not the whole story. It turns out that for any music application to be useful, you need, well, you need the music. So, a big part of The Echo Nest's business model is to act as a broker between the music companies and music app developers. The developers access that content through an API that acts as a sort of extension of the current (broken) rights regime.

"I'm a recovering lawyer myself and we should change copyright law. But by the time we get around to changing copyright law, there'll be another whole set of uses," Lucchese told me. "We really see the API as basically a way to extend the idea of a compulsory license."

Working with an imperfect system, they're groping towards a technological way of making the law work better. "By making the licensed content available in a way that's consistent with the business rules, content owners are getting paid and we can get the content in the hands of developers," he concluded.

Lucchese's Berkman talk will be available on this site soon.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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