Of Lessig and Muxtape

October 14, 2008

Larry Lessig’s WSJ Op-ed “In Defense of Piracy” is quickly making the rounds of inboxes via a few email lists I’m on, suggesting that re-posting it here will not be news to anybody.

What I thought I’d mention in conjunction with Lessig’s piece however, is a link and some thoughts on yet another sad chapter in the entertainment industry’s long brutal fight against creativity and non-traditional business models online.

Former Berkman Intern Zach McCune first brought Muxtape – a site dedicated to facilitate music playlist sharing – to my attention sometime during the summer.

An undergraduate and the victim of an RIAA file-sharing lawsuit, Zach is a grizzled veteran of the copyright wars. He and I agreed that while Muxtape was a beautiful idea, it was only a matter of time before it got mangled by the legal machinery of the music industry.

The truth has turned out to be somehow more complex and twisted than we had ever imagined.

Muxtape (c) 2008, Muxtape LLC

Muxtape (c) 2008, Muxtape LLC

Muxtape founder Justin Ouellette’s September 25 post to the site breaks down the last few months in some detail. Here are the highlights:

  • “In the end, Muxtape’s legality was moot.”
  • “In May I had my first meeting with a major label, Universal Music Group.”
  • “The gentlemen I met at Universal were incredibly receptive and tactful; I didn’t have to sell them on why Muxtape was good for them, they knew it was cool and just wanted to get paid.”
  • “Things were going well. I spent the next two months talking with investors, designing the next phases of the site itself, and supervising the negotiations.”
  • “The first red flag came in August…the talk shifted to things like guaranteed placement and “marketing opportunities.” I was denied the possibility of releasing a mobile version of Muxtape. My flexibility was being constricted.”
  • “…on August 15th, I received…a complaint from the RIAA.”
  • “…on Monday when I wasn’t able to produce the documentation Amazon wanted (or even get someone from the RIAA on the phone), the servers were shut down and I was locked out of the account.”
  • “…the RIAA moves quite autonomously from their label parents and that the understanding I had with them didn’t necessarily carry over.”
  • “And so I made one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever faced: I walked away from the licensing deals. They had become too complex for a site founded on simplicity, too restrictive and hostile to continue to innovate the way I wanted to.”
  • “Muxtape is relaunching as a service exclusively for bands…”
  • “The new Muxtape will allow bands to upload their own music and offer an embeddable player that works anywhere on the web, in addition to the original muxtape format.”

Ouellete’s experience with Muxtape demonstrates that the actions of the RIAA constitute an egregious, anti-competitive abuse of the American legal system. Perhaps the most troubling aspect of the story is the fact that they effectively shut down Ouellete’s business while several of their constituents were in the process of negotiating with him (indeed, the takedown episode looks like a sorry excuse for a bargaining tactic).

When is congress going to stand up to these goons? At the moment, our elected representatives are too busy passing the PRO-IP act, yet another gift of federal enforcement resources to the content industry (against the wishes of the Department of Justice!) at the same time as the US economy struggles to avoid a free-fall.

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