Bringing Legitimacy to the Free Music World

The United States Supreme Court dealt online file sharing a body blow in June when it ruled that makers of peer-to-peer (P2P) software could be held liable for illegitimate uses of their applications. Since that decision was handed down in MGM v. Grokster, the P2P world has been floundering, bobbing in a sea of uncertainty over its future prospects.

While no one believes file-sharing on the Net is going to disappear — BigChampagne reports usage in September up 43.9 percent over 2004 and 133.3 percent over 2003 — many believe the landscape will certainly change as new P2P models emerge. Among the blooming models is Mashboxx, which has been in beta since the end of June. The P2P technology works in conjunction with Snocap — a music registry and clearinghouse developed by former bad boy turned White Hat Shawn Fanning of Napster fame — to insure that downloaders pay copyright holders for their material shared over the Net.

A driving force behind Mashboxx is Wayne Rosso. Rosso is a flamboyant figure whose acidic observations about the music industry in the past while as lead honcho of outfits like Grokster and Optisoft has put his new venture in a dicey position, since to make it work, it needs the cooperation of the very people Rosso’s bashed for years.

But in a shrewd move this fall, Mashboxx appointed an entertainment insider, Mike Bebel, to be president and CEO of the company. Bebel has been a senior vice president at Universal Studios and CEO of Pressplay, a joint venture between Universal and Sony. Before joining Mashboxx, he was president and COO of the new Napster, which he left last year. TechNewsWorld recently spoke with Bebel about Mashboxx and the changing P2P world.

TechNewsWorld: Why did you leave Napster?

Mike Bebel: I really don’t want to talk about why I left Napster. Let’s just say it was a very amicable separation. I remain friends with those guys. It was a personal issue.

TNW: One of the cited benefits of Mashboxx is that it meets the needs of music fans while protecting artists and their work. How does it do that?

Bebel: Mashboxx is music-industry friendly because it respects copyrights by managing the content it encounters on the peer-to-peer networks according to the rules set of the copyright holders.

We do that through a network rights management system that we developed. Our peer-to-peer client uses fingerprinting technology to recognize content. We have fingerprints on file that content companies have attached rights to. We match up to the content that’s being trafficked over the peer-to-peer network to those rights.

The system recognizes the content, attaches rights to it and allows it to be downloaded. The rights govern what the user is able to do with the song. The rights holder, for instance, may say you can play this song a certain number of times before you have to decide whether or not to buy it.

TNW: So the person sharing files no longer has to worry about violating any content owner’s rights anymore?

Bebel: That’s exactly right. The system manages the content at a network level. So he doesn’t have to be concerned. He can open up his share folder. We’re not collecting IP addresses or anything like that. We’re simply looking at the content that’s being shared and managing it with respect to the rules set by the copyright holder.

TNW: How much of an adjustment will a typical P2P user have to make to use Mashboxx?

Bebel: The Mashboxx experience will be very transparent to a current peer-to-peer user. The client that they download will look, act and feel very much like any peer-to-peer client to which they have become accustomed. But they don’t have to worry about adware, spyware or any intrusive underlying software whatsoever. And the experience they get is the one that most people on peer-to-peer engage in: the ability to sample anything and everything that’s out there. That’s the only reason that I can fathom why all that peer-to-peer activity would want to transition to a legitimate space.

TNW: What’s Snocap’s role in this scheme?

Bebel: Snocap is the enabler. They’re making available to us the database of fingerprints and rights.

TNW: Do you think that your appointment as president and CEO of Mashboxx will give it more credibility in the eyes of the music industry?

Bebel: Certainly my relationships and credibility is part of the reason why I’m here, as well as my operational experience. All of that has made me an attractive candidate for this role and the right guy for the job.

TNW: What effect do you think the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Grokster case will have on the P2P world?

Bebel: It’s changed the landscape in that now there’s a ruling in place that’s clear about what it means to be on the right side of the line and the wrong side of the line in the P2P space. Now there’s a litmus test.

The court ruling, as I interpret it, says that peer-to-peer technology is fine. It’s how you implement it and how you monetize it that is at issue. As I sit here, we [Mashboxx] are doing exactly what that case suggests is the appropriate way to go to market.

TNW: Some observers of the digital music scene have predicted that the music industry will abate its aggressive campaign against file sharers in order to encourage downloaders to use legitimate services. What do you think of that prediction?

Bebel: I don’t anticipate the music industry doing anything less than what they have been doing to protect their copyrights.

TNW: What do you see the online music scene looking like five years from now?

Bebel: It’s very hard to predict the future. I think five years from now there will still be a lot of CDs sold in the marketplace, but digital distribution of content will be a much more significant share of the revenues for the music industry. And I anticipate that legitimate peer-to-peer services like Mashboxx will have a sizeable share of that activity.

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