Amazon, Apple, Google play 'chicken' over cloud music lockers

Apple and Google happy to let Amazon's Cloud Drive take legal heat, says expert

Amazon beat rivals Google and Apple to the punch Tuesday when it launched its Cloud Drive digital music storage service, but those competitors are probably happy to let Amazon take the lead, an expert said today.

"There was a game of chicken going on," said Aram Sinnreich, a media professor at Rutgers University. "These are uncharted waters and really a gray area legally. Personally, I think that basic 'locker' storage space should not require a license from the record labels, but they'll probably disagree.

"So Amazon is doing the dirty work for Google and Apple by going first," said Sinnreich.

On Tuesday, Amazon debuted Cloud Drive, an online service that provides 5GB of free storage for music, video and other files. After users upload tunes to Cloud Drive, they can stream the music to an Android smartphone or to a browser running on Windows or Mac OS X.

Amazon kicked off its cloud-based service without first clearing its plans with the major recording labels, including Sony Music.

And Sony wasn't happy.

"We are disappointed that Amazon decided to launch this service without licensing," said a Sony Music spokesman Tuesday.

The music industry's position has been steadfast: Streaming music services, such as Rhapsody and Spotify, require licensing agreements with the recording labels.

Same for storage services -- the term "locker" has been slapped on offerings like Cloud Drive -- according to a music industry source close to the situation. "We're supportive of locker services, but licensing is necessary," said the source, who requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.

Negotiations to obtain those licensing agreements with the labels have probably kept Apple and Google from launching a locker service similar to Amazon's Cloud Drive, said Sinnreich.

"The licensing process takes a long time," Sinnreich said. "My guess is that Apple and Google are taking [the licensing] approach, but because Amazon is going in without licensing, [Amazon's move] may set a legal precedent."

In Sinnreich's analysis, Amazon becomes the point man for Apple and Google, who are probably more than happy to have their rival take the legal heat over the locker concept.

"But just because Amazon is first, I wouldn't count out Apple or Google," said Sinnreich. "Everyone wanted to see who would make the first move."

Both Apple and Google are expected to launch their own music streaming services this year, most likely with a subscription-style component that lets customers listen to tunes that they haven't purchased -- that would be a major difference from Cloud Drive, which only streams tracks that customers already own (or have acquired through less-than-legal means).

Even with that limitation, Sinnreich sees Cloud Drive, licensed or not, as a smart move. And the first step by one of the three companies -- Amazon, Apple and Google -- toward a reworking of the way people acquire and consume digital music.

"This is not an understatement: It's a harbinger of the new era," said Sinnreich. "There's been a lot of hype in the past year about how cloud services would revolutionize the digital music experience. This is the first major foray into that space."

And although the labels want Amazon and others to negotiate deals before launching lockers or streaming services, Amazon may have been clever by debuting Cloud Drive sans licensing.

"This was a smart move," said Sinnreich. "If Cloud Drive attracts customers, Amazon can then go to the labels and say, 'Look how good this is doing.' Let's talk licensing."

Amazon introduced the cloud based services on Tuesday, offering 5 GB of free storage to users.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer, or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@computerworld.com.

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