Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka Pulls a Pandora by Booting International Users

Over the weekend, the out-of-nowhere music start-up that really is as good as its hype, abruptly told many of its users to leave. With a shrug, the service shut down streams to users outside the U.S.

“To all our international friends, we’re sorry you can’t use turntable right now due to licensing constraints,” Turntable told users via Twitter. “Trying to get you back in asap.”

The bad news: I wouldn’t count on international access opening up again for a long time.

The good news: This is good news. It’s another sign that Turntable is trying to figure out how to use the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as a way around having to negotiate onerous music licenses, which improves its chances for survival.

Turntable, which lets people play and listen to just about any song they want, is trying to position itself — legally, at least — as a “non-interactive” Web radio, which would be shielded by the DMCA.

But the DMCA only covers use in the U.S., and there’s no equivalent licensing option available overseas. Which means either hammer out license deals in every country it wants to operate in, or turn the company into a U.S.-only operation.

This is exactly what Pandora, which also uses the DMCA for licensing, had to do back in 2007. And that seems to have worked out okay.

It’s worth noting that although Pandora is now on a $200 million revenue run rate, and reopening international operations is part of the company’s long-term plans, it is cautioning investors not to expect anything soon.

“Copyright and licensing laws vary from country to country, making international expansion a complex task, and we expect the process for securing licensing rights will require a number of years,” Pandora warns, via an SEC filing. “We are working to obtain the appropriate rights with economics that work for us, with the objective of eventually launching Pandora internationally.”

Meanwhile, whether Turntable will be able to convince the music industry that it is indeed protected by the DMCA remains an open question. It has been trying to comply with the restrictions on the fly, making adjustments as it soars in popularity. Recently, for instance, it stopped allowing users to play music in “rooms” without other listeners.

Will those be enough? We don’t know.

Here, via Twitter, is some skepticism from a knowledgable observer with skin in the game: Sony CFO Rob Weisenthal. “I love but it is tough to see how the DJ is DMCA compliant,” he wrote this morning, before inviting followers to join him in “The Hip Hop Lounge.”

And here’s the counterargument: Surf-singing dude Jack Johnson’s Brushfire Records music label giving the service a big wet kiss.

Brushfire’s stance is the right one, obviously. Of course music labels should embrace a service that lets music fans turn other music fans on to new music. But that doesn’t mean it’s going to happen.

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald