By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
”Getting content is next to impossible,“ says Brian Zisk, the director of technology for the Future of Music Coalition, who also worked on a content-distribution network called Peer Genius, which for a time had episodes of The Simpsons on its servers. ”But once we closed everything off and tried to get legitimate content,“ he says, ”we got almost none. I had friends at the record labels who had always called me back. As soon as I was calling them trying to get content, they stopped returning my phone calls.“ As you can’t have subscribers to a service with nothing on it, and since Peer Genius‘ creators didn’t want to get sued, the project was halted. ”As long as the record companies see licensing content for online distribution as a threat to their sale of plastic discs,“ says Zisk, ”any network with licensed content is likely to have only a fraction of what you can get off KaZaA.“
Last October, however, the Justice Department began investigating whether the record companies, by refusing to license content to any but their own online ventures, have been shoring up a crumbling monopoly with a misuse of copyright law. A few months later, on February 29 of this year, CenterSpan signed an agreement with Sony Music to distribute its entire catalog on CStarOne‘s network, and on Tuesday Sony announced it would make available a handful of artists’ work, including songs by John Mayer and Macy Gray, on CStarOne via its Scour.com Web site. To hear Hausmann tell it, more such liaisons will follow. ”We‘re in formal negotiations,“ he says, ”and we’ve modeled this thing out, and we‘re closing in on the a parameters.“ And if the parameters work out right, says Hausmann, CStarOne could satisfy consumers’ hunger for instant new music and at the same time rebuild the music industry in a way that fits the future.
CStarOne is not, precisely, a peer-to-peer network. In fact, Hausmann told me over the phone, ”we‘ve had debates about whether I should appear at anything having to do with this peer-to-peer file-sharing thing, because you’d have no idea that you were part of a peer-to-peer network unless you read your license agreement.“ CenterSpan Communications, which administers CStarOne, made its name manufacturing joysticks, but the company now focuses on ”content delivery networks,“ or CDNs, a technology traditionally deployed to manage high-traffic Internet enterprises, such as blowout lingerie sales or high-bandwidth Web casts. CDNs such as Akamai and Inktomi distribute usage over a network of some 15,000 or so machines; CStarOne, says Hausmann, is a CDN that spreads traffic over an even wider network of computers, using computer users‘ dormant resources in much the same way UC Berkeley’s SETI@home project marshaled idle computers to the task of searching for extraterrestrial life. Nor will CStarOne serve the consumer directly as a for-profit retail service: The demonstration of its service on its Web site, Scour.com -- a retooling of the Scour file-sharing network that folded a few years back in the face of crippling legal challenges from the movie industry -- is merely a ”technology and marketing showcase,“ says Hausmann. Any retailer wishing to offer online content, from Yahoo to MusicNet to, thinking bigger, a reconfigured Napster, could grab content off CStarOne. Hausmann calls it a ”value-added CDN“: Instead of simply storing the data and moving it around efficiently, CStarOne pulls all the content together on one service, makes sure it‘s licensed and DRM-wrapped, and makes it available to retailers. Hausmann says this process will save record and movie companies money, thereby motivating them to sign over their songs and videos.
Amanda Collins, a spokesperson for the RIAA, said on Tuesday that she had no official objections. ”We’re not against the technology,“ she said, ”as long as the copyright owners have a chance to negotiate their own licensing agreements.“
Consumers who are reminded of Brilliant Digital secretly embedding its resource-sharing Altnet software in KaZaA‘s Media Desktop needn’t worry: Subscribers who don‘t want little bits of CStarOne’s encrypted data stored on their machines can opt out. ”We don‘t need 100-percent participation for this thing to work,“ says Hausmann. ”We need somewhere south of 50 percent.“ And resource-sharing has advantages: Instead of waiting in fidgety dismay as user TIMF08767 grinds your whole Dylan collection off your computer with his 56K modem, as often happens on networks where files are shared whole, users on CStar’s network scarcely detect retrievals from their hard drives. ”The segmentation of CStar solves the problem of other users sucking up your computer‘s resources,“ Hausmann told the room at CFP. ”There is no degradation at all in usage.“
There is one problem with CStarOne’s network: No matter how deep it goes or how broad it reaches, it will never offer the kind of surprises currently available on the grittier peer-to-peer networks, for the simple reason that peers can‘t publish. CStarOne will not only stop me from cutting into Island Records’ profits by ripping all the tracks of the new Elvis Costello album and storing them in my ”shared“ file, it will also prevent me from circulating a rare live recording or the results of a friend‘s band’s gig. The small record-label owner I met recently who downloaded Shelby Lynne singing ”Ode to Billy Joe“ live on television (because he wanted to prove to me that she is not, after all, the thinking man‘s Britney Spears) will never find such things on any service using CStarOne for its content, nor will he find uncopyrighted material guerrilla-marketed by some artist looking to get signed. CStarOne will forever lack the surprises that made some of us into Napster addicts (and, incidentally, more voracious music fans) back in the day. It will never make decentralized networks obsolete.