Updating the Book of Style|
[ No. 60 - October 2001 ]
We're not going to capitalize the word "internet" any more. Yeah,
it made sense at the beginning. Five years ago there was something
exciting about using a computer network, created by military and
academic engineers to safeguard data in case of atomic obliteration,
for the whimsical purpose of having friendships with people we'd
never meet who heard our songs in the comfort of their homes half
a world away. We had a new technological toy, one that would (this
time for real) actually make a difference in our lives. A tool for
"disintermediation," to "level the playing field" and "skip the
middle man." A tool so compelling we could almost envision a
harmonious and equitable global community. Every resource would be
available for free in every hut, home and hovel. No one left out,
no one excluded. Our "internet" was to be the Great Equalizer.
But our equalizer is only the internet, after all. We sift through
500 emails and only three need answering. Our public discussion
board must have filters to lock out spammers. Our choice of creative
tools is reduced to one or two pieces of unintuitive and expensive
bloatware (courtesy the "purchase and bury" method of corporate
competitive tech advantage). When humor and humility are replaced
by hurricanes of hype, it becomes adamantly clear our great new
tool is only a hammer. In the right hands it can build something
All this doesn't mean your plucky FezGuys have gone AWOL. We know
where the useful things are. We know what's a good common-sense
tool and what's a piece of crap. And we won't be shy about saying
what we think, either. In spite of the megalo-maniacal hubris
surrounding us like leech-infested mud flats, us Fezzes will continue
to seek out and promote Good Hearts and Fair Minds, and to expose
deceit and foolish behavior.
In the early 90s (when Netscape was still Mosaic) you'd be hard-pressed
to find a company with a huge internet budget, yet couldn't toss
a floppy without hitting one of many freely available programs
coded by good-meaning individuals. Many of these folks found
themselves scrambling to turn a good idea into a way to support
themselves as the world became enamored with the Web. Within the
space of a few weeks, it seemed, the mad rush for VC millions became
commonplace. Most of these companies died; hypnotized by unrealistic
expectations or just lacking a workable business model. Some were
swallowed whole by larger companies. A few carved out a successful niche
and are now jettisoning employees to survive lean times. Many companies'
stories are the chaotic story of the internet itself. To celebrate column
#60 (the FezGuys Five
Year Anniversary!) we're diving into one example of that chaos -
a company that began as merely a neat and useful idea, a "small
tool done good," that saw big money acquisition and later negative
public opinion, a company using litigation to stay alive and still
grinding on, hoping to survive. It's a typical story of the internet.
Created by Steve Scherf and Ti Kan in California in 1995 as a "fun
and easy way to identify and categorize their CDs" CDDB began as
a casual tool. You could instantly identify song, artist and album
info for CDs played in your computer from an online database.
Encoding and player apps would map your CDs' TOC (table of contents)
to the actual track names in the database and, if someone had
entered and submitted the CD's information, the track titles (plus
other info) would appear in the player window. Nice, simple and
free. Anyone (individuals, label employees, the folks at CDDB) and
everyone supplied the information to create the CDDB database. We
got used to updating our own CD releases (we're talking extreme
indie stuff here) to CDDB and also playing our own one-off CDs to
see what the CDDB database would make of it. Sometimes it could be
very amusing. We'd put in a recent mix of some song we're working
on and CDDB would tell us it was Tori Amos and give us album tracks
in order. No dice, but amusing, nonetheless. A simple idea isn't
always so simple to pull off.
From the beginning the founders thought it would be nice to make
a living from something they had created and that others found
useful. When CDDB started running out of their own resources, they moved
on, borrowing bandwidth and diskspace from appreciative folks online
in true grassroots fashion. The code that ran CDDB (programmed by
Scherf) was released as open-source under the GNU Public License
(GPL), but Scherf retained the copyright to his work (GPL gives
the right to modify and use the software as long as the source code
of the new application is, in turn, also released under the GPL).
At this time, the founders also included the complete current
database along with the code so anyone could easily (and helpfully)
put up their own mirror. A lot of people were now using CDDB and
it was clearly time to get the business in order. Though CDDB
code and use were still free, it was also clear that (the GPL
notwithstanding) the service could be stolen, modified and co-opted.
They stopped including the full database in new version source code
distribution in February, 1998.
An investor named Scott Jones purchased CDDB in July 1998 and
incorporated it into the Escient company name. In November, 1998,
Jones also acquired Ion (a CD-ROM company), that controlled technology
patents CDDB quietly made use of, making everything legally clean.
Escient/CDDB had money to pay actual employees. It was time to
start licensing their system. Still wanting to keep things free
for the majority share of small users, the founders-turned-company-men
opted for a single license allowing free use to anyone distributing
250,000 units or less. This allowed independently distributed
shareware/freeware application development to continue using CDDB
while having the new big kids (RealNetworks, Winamp, Audiocatalyst,
etc) pay for each copy of their software sold. At this point everything is
wine and roses: a useful product, free software, developer support,
larger users paying an equitable fee, and people who love what they
do making a living doing it.
In 1999, a site called FreeDB.org appears. Built from Scherf's code
and an old 1997 database, the site is possibly a response to
Escient's pronouncement of ownership of the CDDB database (created
and shared by all) and now requiring licenses for its use. Several
months later FreeDB's database converts from the old 1997 CDDB
database version to a current version, leaked from one of the
authorized mirror sites. All anyone can seem to find out about
FreeDB is that it's operated primarily out of Germany. How to handle
this conundrum? Yes, FreeDB is clearly using a copy of the database
proven to be owned by CDDB. But is it legal (and ethical) to
copyright a database primarily created by the public? Many open-source
supporters (the Electronic Frontier Foundation included) say
absolutely not. For now (along with other companies like Epinions.com
- whose real assets are provided by the public at large) Escient
holds the upper hand.
Escient, renamed Gracenote in July, 2000, currently represents itself as
doing "everything it can to support continued use by the open-source
community." Recent licenses (April 2001) include a revised commercial
version providing free use for under 75,000 units and a non-commercial
version allowing free use provided no money is made from the related
product. Commercial license fees are a mild six cents per user per
year (far cheaper than another internet audio technology company
- MP3Pro - demands of its licensees).
According to Gracenote CEO David Hyman, response has been
strong. Over 2,200 non-commercial licenses were granted in a recent
four month period and about 100 a week continue to come in. But
there's that little exclusivity clause that's bugging a lot of people.
The open-source community has withheld the Gold Star rating for
Gracenote that it once gave to CDDB. A tiny, yet oh-so-important
detail in the new non-commercial license states: "you use the
Gracenote CDDB Database and Gracenote CDDB Client in your Licensed
Application as your sole source of Data from the Internet(sic) that
is based on reading the TOC Data of any CD, Enhanced CD, CD-ROM,
Tag ID or DVD media with your Licensed Application." Simply put:
it's their way or the highway. This rather harsh stance rubs
open-source supporters the wrong way. The open-source community is
worth listening to. They often lead the way to popular adoption of
technologies and applications. Naturally Gracenote wants this. But
Scherf gives the impression the exclusivity clause is the result
of lawyers "perhaps not quite getting things quite right [in trying
to prevent simultaneous use of the FreeDB service]." Hyman goes further,
stating the company "should seriously consider
re-evaluating that clause."
But Scherf appears ambivalent about FreeDB's existence, saying
that: "competition is good...the more CD database systems out
there, the better." Although he felt "betrayed" when later versions
of the database were leaked to FreeDB, Scherf thinks it will
work itself out. In his mind; if FreeDB continues to use the
Gracenote database or violates their software patents things will
move to litigation. If FreeDB switches to its own data and doesn't
infringe on patents, then it's simply healthy competition. FreeDB
and others in the field know that Gracenote isn't shy about going
to court. Digital music player manufacturer Roxio Inc. was sued by
Gracenote earlier this year for breach of contract after letting
their license expire and moving to a new CD database system that
Gracenote claimed violated their patents. Roxio responded with a
counter-suit and things have been quiet for the past month or so.
Just another spasm in the internet audio technology story.
What's all this to us? Obviously, if you start something (and want
to make money from it) protect your work cleanly and completely
from the start. Sound familiar, songwriters?
Gracenote's future is focused on granting licenses and moving their
database system into home consumer components. Their entire database
of over 11 million song titles can be compressed (lots of song
titles include "baby" and "love") down to 300MB (half a single CD-ROM).
This "Gracenote Data Disc" is set for release in January, 2002, and the
data is planned to be integrated into multi-disc CD carousels, with
regular updating via mail. Today in Japan there are people with very
expensive car CD changers using voice
recognition systems integrated with the Gracenote CD database. We
can visualize drivers shouting song names they want to hear while
careening around highways. Scherf says he hopes to see co-operation
between his and other existing CD database companies (MusicBrainz.org,
MUZE and Microsoft's new service).
Naturally, the FezGuys think that it only makes sense for everyone to work
together. Open standards in technological infrastructure are good. Open
standards lead to things that work for the consumer and aren't co-opted by
constipated corporate bureacracies. Sure Gracenote made a few judgement
errors in handling their licensing and paid dearly in public opinion. We
hope they stand behind their words. Hey, FreeDB could end up a Gracenote
licensee. Everybody wins, right?
The FezGuys welcome your comments.