Colleges mull new music royalty structure

The nonprofit group Choruss, one of the organizations promoting blanket licensing for the use of digital music, is meeting with higher-education officials to formulate a plan for the future of music on campus–and its president, Jim Griffin, said in a March 3 webinar that schools can no longer depend on technology or new laws to prevent illegal file sharing.

Griffin, a longtime music industry consultant, spoke to educators who are concerned about the uncertain future of online music during an hour-long webinar hosted by the ed-tech advocacy group EDUCAUSE.

Choruss’s concrete strategy won’t be rolled out until fall 2010 at the latest, Griffin said, but he hinted at the approaches the company would take in negotiations with colleges and universities. Griffin said higher education should not focus on legal P2P file sharing. Instead, he said, universities should consider "lower fees spread evenly across campus, like library or gym fees."

Choruss aims to monetize digital music with a flat fee and distribute the profits evenly among all parties involved, including the artists who produce the music.

"We’re clearly in a circumstance where it’s become voluntary to pay for music products," said Griffin, head of OneHouse LLC, an organization that helps businesses and artists transition to a digital platform. "I think it’s fair to say the business of music products has fallen and it just can’t get up. … For any civilized society, it has to become very, very concerned when it becomes voluntary to pay for … the stuff of innovation, because those are the very things that drive civilized society, especially the one we live in."

Acknowledging the system will "never be perfect," Griffin said illegal downloading is "only going to get worse every year," and he said IT administrators and programmers will only be able to slow illegal downloading before people find their way around the digital blockades.

Griffin–who said industry giant Warner Music Group is "incubating" Choruss during its development–addressed mounting criticism of the Choruss model during the EDUCAUSE webinar, assuring participants that the nonprofit’s plans don’t include instituting a standard fee on every American campus.

Griffin said college officials should survey their students and faculty to measure what level of participation the campus would receive with a flat fee. Depending on the response, colleges could implement a system in which students are free to opt in or opt out at any time, he said. 

"It isn’t that Choruss starts out with the notion that the entertainment industry ought to balance its books on the backs of students," he said.

Griffin’s proposals come just weeks after thousands of campuses nationwide were left without a legal digital music service. In early February, Ruckus–a download service supported by advertisements and available free of charge to college students–went under, continuing a string of early departures by low-cost music sites. Ruckus shut down after Universal Music Group and Sony did away with their Total Music venture, which owned Ruckus.

Napster, which switched to a legal downloading service after beginning as a controversial file-sharing site in the late 1990s, and Cdigix were other affordable music sites that have closed down or stopped catering to colleges in recent months.

The Choruss model has received mixed reaction in early 2009. In interviews with eCampus News, many college officials said they’d be willing to pay a nominal per-student fee to give the campus access to legal online music, but exorbitant fees could be rejected outright.

"One dollar yes, $3 no," said Jean L. Boland, vice president for IT services at Morrisville State College in New York, a former Ruckus customer.

Griffin said an official Choruss web site could be built sometime in the next year. First, he said, Choruss decision makers wanted to meet with university leaders before a final strategy is unveiled.

"It’s wrong to say, ‘Here’s what it’s going to be,’ and to carve that into stone on a web site," he said. "When we have clear answers to that, we’ll put them up."


EDUCAUSE webinar on Choruss