If you were to take your living room, complete with stereo and a few friends in lounge chairs, and shrink it down enough to squeeze it into the Internet’s tubes, you’d have MixApp. MixApp – currently in an invite-only beta – allows groups of friends to create virtual rooms where they can chat while they listen to a shared playlist. The music can come from multiple users’ libraries, and can be rearranged by anyone in the room. Everyone in the room hears the same music at the same time. And while right now, it’s Mac-only, PC and iPhone versions are on the way.
Sound familiar? It should. It’s a lot like what happens when you invite some friends over and listen to CDs at your house. The primary difference is that your friends can be in the room or across the country. And for groups of friends who share music as a common interest, MixApp provides an incredible opportunity to connect and share where distance was once an insurmountable barrier. So where's the catch?
The trouble, of course, is that MixApp’s creators are entering a legal world which is unfriendly to new, creative uses that are not endorsed and controlled by the current major music distribution channels. And in this world, even common, lawful, reasonable activities can result in a (hopefully unsuccessful) lawsuit if those activities use a cable which is too long.
For a rather prescient question, let’s turn to what legendary producer and manager Peter Jenner said at the Future of Music Coalition’s DC Policy Day earlier this year:
Now if you come over to my house and I play you a record, I don’t expect someone to come knocking on my door to ask for a payment….
Will the RIAA soon be knocking on MixApp’s door, demanding permission and payment for its users to enjoy music with each other? Will they argue that because MixApp is digital (unlike your living room), it makes infringing reproductions of music, or that because it operates through the Internet (unlike your living room), it somehow becomes a public performance? Will they attempt to squash this new application before we get to see what it can offer us?
History tells us that content producers are not shy about attempting to exert control over how and whether content is used in new ways. History also teaches us that we won’t know which ideas were the revolutionary ones until after the revolution is over. The only problem is, will the revolution even happen if we must wait for the perfect model before we have permission to try it?
For an example of how the MixApp story could turn out, we can look back to Mehan’s post about the demise (and zombie-style resurrection) of the innovative mixtape creation and sharing service Muxtape. With the RIAA having taken down the Muxtape web site and the labels and the site’s creator unable to come to an agreement, Muxtape (as originally envisioned) has become just one more application that will never get to be a part of the revolution.
It’s not news that business models and technical capabilities are outpacing copyright law. The looming question is this: In a world of instant communications and sharing, will it ever be possible to get permission to run a service which lets people use the music they own in new and interesting ways? Do we need, as Jenner and others have suggested, to move to a model of compensation rather than permission?
What will be the ultimate fate of MixApp? It’s hard to say. It’s in a mostly-closed invite-only testing phase. Behind the scenes, the developers are still hammering out many details, including the exactly how MixApp rooms and social circles will work. And to our knowledge, no action has been taken on the part of the content owners. We’ll just have to wait, see, and hope that reason and innovation prevail, and that the next revolution survives, wherever it comes from.
Meanwhile, check out MixApp. It’s one to watch — and listen to.