One of Michael Robertson’s friends sent him a link on Tuesday to an article about Amazon launching its Cloud Player music service, with a note saying: “Finally, people can store their music in the cloud!” The friend knew this would get a laugh out of the Mp3tunes.com founder, since he has been trying to build a similar cloud-based music service for more than a decade. So how does he feel about Amazon joining the party? “Bring it on,” he says. Robertson also believes Amazon’s approach could have interesting legal consequences, since it appears to be playing fast and loose with the terms of its licenses from the major record labels.
Robertson said he looks at Amazon’s entry into the cloud-based music market in two ways. As a competitor, he said, “We kick their butt in all kinds of ways — we work on the iPhone, we work on Windows 7, we have an open API. If you match us feature-for-feature, we are clearly superior.” He called the Amazon offering “a solid version one,” but said it is missing many of the added bells and whistles that Mp3tunes offers, including the ability to transcode music on the fly when streaming to a mobile device.
Competition aside, the Mp3tunes founder also says he is glad that Amazon has launched its service, and that Google is soon expected to do the same. He’s hoping that these new services will bring more attention to the marketplace, where his company and several other small players such as mSpot have been toiling away trying to get noticed for years.
They did a lot of things right with this service. And it will bring more attention to the landscape and that will be good for everyone.
So far, the only ones who have really paid much attention to Robertson are the major record labels, who have repeatedly sued him for trying to put “their” music in the cloud. His first effort was MyMp3. That service was part of mp3.com, the company he launched in 1997, long before Apple introduced the iPod and came to dominate the field of digital music. Like Amazon’s new service, MyMp3 also allowed users to upload music to their digital lockers and listen to it whenever they wanted.
Mp3.com was sued by all the major record labels, who argued that the service amounted to widespread copying of their content, and Robertson sold the company in 2001. Eventually — after launching several other services, including a voice-over-IP company called SIPphone and a Linux-based Windows competitor called Linspire (originally known as Lindows) — he started Mp3tunes. Once again he tried to offer cloud-based music storage lockers, complete with what he called “side-loading,” which allowed users to move music they bought elsewhere online into their lockers.
Not surprisingly, Robertson was sued again, by the record label EMI. The case is currently before the courts, and the Mp3tunes founder says that what Amazon is doing has a direct bearing on his lawsuit, since many of the services the giant online retailer is offering — including moving purchases directly into users’ storage accounts — aren’t permitted by the licenses Amazon has with the major record labels (the company has said that it doesn’t think it needs new licenses). Says Robertson:
It’s a fascinating throwdown with the record labels. Everyone knows that Apple and Google are formulating their own plans in this area, and here’s Amazon effectively saying we don’t care about those licenses.
As for being the pioneer who has been trying to build a business for a decade, only to see giants like Amazon and Apple come along and try to take it away, Robertson is surprisingly sanguine. “That’s the free market,” he says with a laugh. “The same thing that allows me to do it allows anyone to come along and copy me and compete with me. It’s not enough to have the idea, you have to have the execution and the timing — and being early is almost the same as being wrong, unfortunately.”
The Mp3tunes founder says his service has about 750,000 users but admits, “That’s not really enough to build a business on.” Robertson is hoping that while the big players are expanding the market, he can carve out enough of a user base to keep his decade-long fight alive. And if not? “Then I lose,” he says. “That’s part of life.”
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Wikimedia Commons