If the idea of the music industry caving and giving in to the piracy community by providing free and legal music downloads sounds to good to be true, that's probably because it is. Qtrax, a new website launched Sun. claimed to be doing just that this week, dropping the names of four major labels-Warner, Universal, Sony BMG and EMI-said to be backing the music website that planned to use peer-to-peer sharing to distribute music. By Mon. afternoon, all four labels had denied signing any deals with Qtrax. News of the website took the Internet by storm late last week, and has become the bread and butter of technology bloggers ever since.
In a blurb describing the site on parent company Brilliant Technologies Corporation website, Qtrax claimed to have "already signed deals with Universal, Sony/ATV, Warner Music Group, The Orchard, EMI Music Publishing and EMI Music, TVT Records, Go Digital, ASCAP and BMI." Coupled with the announcement of the site's imminent launch, the company's stock skyrocketed Mon., only to plummet sharply by Tue. as the major labels each denied the deal one by one, leading several tech blogs and news sites to question whether the whole thing was just a stock scam.
Regardless of what the true motives of the site may have been, Qtrax's business model had an excellent opportunity to revolutionize the way people get their music. If piracy does nothing else, it tells the music labels how people want to consume music: through free downloads. While piracy has obvious legal concerns, free distribution of intellectual property has been shown in some cases to actually increase sales.
Case in point, best selling novel, The Alchemist was able to sell millions of copies worldwide after author Paulo Coelho offered up electronic versions of his novel for free on his website. Coelho credits the success of his novel to his readers who translated it into several different languages, making it accessible to a much broader audience than ever before, eventually leading to a tremendous increase in sales.
While the music industry differs in many obvious ways, presumably advertisements for merchandise and concert tickets would do well on a website like Qtrax. After all, if people really enjoy the music they're listening to, why wouldn't they be interested in going to see their favourite bands live? Legal alternatives to piracy have been largely successful and provide useful links to places users can purchase music they hear. According to a whois domain stats search, Last.fm receives close to one million unique visitors per month, while Pandora.com receives a healthy 1.5 million, even after blocking Canadian IP addresses in May of last year when legal concerns were raised about licensing.
Nevertheless, as the model currently exists, piracy will probably continue in one form or another. Songs downloaded off Qtrax-assuming songs eventually become available for download-will be encoded with a nasty Windows media digital rights management, which will prevent users from putting it on their iPods. Still, any tech-savvy piracy veteran can find ways around these sorts of problems using programs like Audacity for Windows or GarageBand for Macs and re-record a song DRM-free. But if that's the case, there may be little incentive to switch over for anyone but the people already legally downloading music off Amazon or iTunes.
At the moment, the best bet for specific music requests legally is probably off of Last.fm, that announced a few weeks ago that it will let its users to request specific songs three times and then forward them to a website where the music can be purchased.
Although Qtrax may at this point be seen largely as a failure and the future butt of Internet jokes, the fact that the major labels are even considering signing a deal with Qtrax is comforting to a community of people who have been trying to tell the music industry this all along. The sort of precedence this would set for the future of all manners of file sharing is also cause for a little optimism in the wake of talk in Ottawa about new copyright law.