Category Archives: Media

Copyright compromise: Music Modernization Act signed into law

Musicians are celebrating as the Music Modernization Act, an attempt to drag copyright and royalty rules into the 21st century, is signed into law after unanimous passage through Congress. The act aims to centralize and simplify the process by which artists are tracked and paid on digital services like Spotify and Pandora, and also extends the royalty treatment to songs recorded before 1972.

The problems in this space have affected pretty much every party. Copyright law and music industry practices were, as you might remember, totally unprepared for the music piracy wave at the turn of the century, and also for the shift to streaming over the last few years. Predictably, it isn’t the labels, distributors or new services that got hosed — it’s artists, who often saw comically small royalty payments from streams if they saw anything at all.

Even so, the MMA has enjoyed rather across-the-board support from all parties, because existing law is so obscure and inadequate. And it will remain that way to a certain extent — this isn’t layman territory and things will remain obscure. But the act will address some of the glaring issues current in the media landscape.

The biggest change is probably the creation of the Mechanical Licensing Collective. This new organization centralizes the bookkeeping and royalty payment process, replacing a patchwork of agreements that required lots of paperwork from all sides (and as usual, artists were often the ones left out in the cold as a result). The MLC will be funded by companies like Pandora or Google that want to enter into digital licensing agreements, meaning there will be no additional commission or fee for the MLC, but the entity will actually be run by music creators and publishers.

Previously digital services and music publishers would enter into separately negotiated agreements, a complex and costly process if you want to offer a comprehensive library of music — one that stifled new entrants to the market. Nothing in the new law prevents companies from making these agreements now, as some companies will surely prefer to do, but the MLC offers a simple, straightforward solution and also a blanket license option where you can just pay for all the music in its registry. This could in theory nurture new services that can’t spare the cash for the hundred lawyers required for other methods.

There’s one other benefit to using the MLC: you’re shielded from liability for statutory damages. Assuming a company uses it correctly and pays their dues, they’re no longer vulnerable to lawsuits that allege underpayment or other shenanigans — the kind of thing streaming providers have been weathering in the courts for years, with potentially massive settlements.

The law also improves payouts for producers and engineers, who have historically been under-recognized and certainly under-compensated for their roles in music creation. Writers and performers are critical, of course, but they’re not the only components to a great song or album, and it’s important to recognize this formally.

The last component of the MMA, the CLASSICS Act, is its most controversial, though even its critics seem to admit that it’s better than what we had before. CLASSICS essentially extends standard copyright rules to works created before 1972, during which year copyright law changed considerably and left pre-1972 works largely out of the bargain.

What’s the problem? Well, it turns out that many works that would otherwise enter the public domain would be copyright-protected (or something like it — there are some technical differences) until 2067, giving them an abnormally long term of protection. And what’s more, these works would be put under this new protection automatically, with no need for the artists to register them. That may sound convenient, but it also means that thousands of old works would be essentially copyrighted even though their creators, if they’re even alive, have asserted no intention of seeking that status.

A simple registry for those works was proposed by a group of data freedom advocates, but their cries were not heard by those crafting and re-crafting the law. Admittedly it’s something of an idealistic objection, and the harm to users is largely theoretical. The bill proceeded more or less as written.

At all events the Music Modernization Act is now law; its unanimous passage is something of an achievement these days, though God knows both sides need as many wins as they can get.

Instagram plans to launch Snapchat Discover-style video hub

Instagram is preparing to unveil a home for longer-form video — a YouTube competitor and its take on Snapchat Discover. Instagram will offer a dedicated space featuring scripted shows, music videos, and more in vertically oriented, full-screen, high-def 4K resolution according to multiple sources. Instagram has been meeting with popular social media stars and content publishers to find out how their video channels elsewhere would work within its app. It’s also lining up launch partners for an announcement of the long-form video effort tentatively scheduled for June 20th.

The public shouldn’t expect Netflix Originals or HBO-level quality. This is not “InstaGame Of Thrones”.  Instead, the feature is more focused on the kind of videos you see from YouTube creators. These often range from five to fifteen minutes in length, shot with nice cameras and lighting but not some massive Hollywood movie production crew. Average users will be able to upload longer videos too, beyond the current 60-second limit.

Instagram intends to eventually let creators and publishers earn money off the longer videos, though it hasn’t finalized how accompanying ads like pre-rolls and mid-breaks or revenue splits would work. It is not paying creators up front for shows like Facebook Watch either. But the videos will each feature a swipe-up option to open a link, which creators can use to drive traffic to their websites, ecommerce stores, or event ticketing. Thanks to Instagram’s 800 million-plus users, the video section could be a powerful marketing tool beyond generating cash for creators directly.

The long-form video section will spotlight a collection of popular videos, and provide a ‘continue watching’ option since users might view long clips over the course of several sessions. Users will also see the long-form clips featured on authors’ profiles near the Stories Highlights bubbles. Creators won’t be able to shoot and post long-form videos, as the section will only allow pre-made video uploads.

Instagram has previously offered Spotlight Collections that assemble multiple videos into a non-stop viewing experience

This new information from TechCrunch’s sources comes after a brief initial report by The Wall Street Journal yesterday that Instagram was talking to content publishers about a vertical video feature. The WSJ’s article focused on the ability for average users to post up to hour-long clips, but the real story here is Instagram launching a professionally produced video entertainment hub. Instagram declined our request for comment.

It’s unclear what the new video feature will be named, or where it will appear. It could possibly live in the Explore tab, get its own tab, or even be spun out into a separate app. Our sources didn’t know how the videos would work with the main Instagram feed, where they could appear full-length or show up as previews to alert a publisher’s fans to their newest long-form clip. The announcement date or feature details could still potentially change.

Facebook’s Watch section of long-form video hasn’t proven popular

Facebook hasn’t had much luck with its own original long-form video section it launched in August 2017, Facebook Watch. Mediocre, unscripted reality shows and documentary clips haven’t proven a draw for the social network, which is now expanding into scripted programs and news shows. Instagram may prove a more natural home for lean-back entertainment content.

InstaTube

The Instagram long-form video section will be Facebook’s answer to two competing social video destinations it’s yet to successfully clone.

Snapchat’s Discover section offers exclusive, professionally produced vertical video shows from an array of publishers as an alternative to shaky user-generated Stories. But with sagging user growth endangering viewership, backlash to the redesign that buries Discover, and a policy shift to stop paying Discover publishers up front, Instagram and its massive user count may be able to seduce publishers to bring longer videos to its app instead.

YouTube is the stronger foe. Its ad revenue sharing agreements and massive engagement have made it the go-to platform for video makers. Still, creators are always looking to build their fanbases, earn more money, and promote their other online presences. Instagram’s wildfire growth and the familiarity of following people there could make the long-form video section worth embracing.

The feature has big potential as long as it’s not too interruptive of people’s entrenched feed-scrolling and Story-tapping behavior patterns. Instagram will also have to convince creators to shoot their content vertically or find ways to gracefully crop it, and some may be apprehensive if they typically shoot in landscape for traditional video players.

The Facebook family of apps might never be able to match the breadth and depth of YouTube’s video catalog. But Instagram has an opportunity here to skim the best content off the top of the sprawling creator/publisher ecosystem and curate it coherently for casual audiences. That could get us spending more time with Instagram, even if our friends are boring.

Facebook is funding news programs from CNN, Fox News, Univision and others

Facebook has unveiled its initial lineup of news programming that will be airing in a dedicated section of Watch, the original video content initiative that the social network launched last year.

While these shows are being produced by outside media organizations, it’s actually Facebook that’s funding them. In a blog post, Head of News Partnerships Campbell Brown described this as an extension of the company’s announcement in January that it would prioritize meaningful social interaction over publisher content.

While that decision took a toll on digital publishers, Brown echoes CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s rationale for the move, saying that while there will be less news in users’ feeds, what remains should be “trustworthy, informative, and local.”

Here’s how Brown describes the news initiative:

This first lineup of funded shows includes news publishers from broadcast to digital native, national and local. The shows will be hosted by award-winning journalists, as well as new faces, and the formats will vary from a mix of daily briefings, weekly deep dives, and live breaking news coverage. They’ll debut later this summer, and we’ll announce additional shows in the coming weeks. We will work closely with our publisher partners to experiment with these different formats to understand what works, and they will have full editorial control of their shows.

The shows include:

  • A daily news show from ABC News
  • “Chasing Corruption,” a series from Alabama’s Advance Local that interviews watchdog journalists
  • A weekly explainer program from ATTN:
  • CNN’s “Anderson Cooper Full Circle,” a weekday news brief featuring Cooper and guests
  • Daily updates from Fox News’ Shepard Smith and others.
  • A twice weekly show from Mic.
  • Univision’s “Real America with Jorge Ramos,” where Ramos interviews immigrants from diverse backgrounds. Univision will also air a daily news roundup in Spanish.

Apple TV gets Dolby Atmos and streamlined sign-ons for channels and services

Apple TV, still definitely not a hobby, has some new features to add as it grows. Tim Cook mentioned that there are 50 percent more users now than there were last year, and no doubt they’ll be happy with the addition of Dolby Atmos audio and some nice sign-on streamlining.

Apple TV is now the only streaming player to be both Dolby Atmos and Vision certified. Assuming you’ve got a 4K HDR-capable TV, it could be nice to have, since iTunes boasts the biggest selection of content for those — but since hardly anyone does, it’s more of an aspirational feature at present.

There are over 100 video channels now after the addition of several live news and sports ones. In France Apple TV will be the exclusive provider of Canal+, and in Switzerland Apple has partnered with Salt for a similar exclusive. And Charter Spectrum will also be coming to Apple TV later this year, so around 50 million people will be able to watch their normal cable content through the device. Finally!

Helpfully, many of these apps won’t require a separate log-in, including Charter Spectrum — as any smart TV user or cable cutter knows, managing these logons can be incredibly annoying. So a single sign on (or zero sign on in some cases) will be a boon.

Unclear what this means for those of us who share passwords between friends and family. Possibly not good.

If you’re a TV background video aficionado, you’ll also be interested in the new orbital video of Earth that can be displayed while nothing else is going on. It’s exclusive to Apple.

Apple needs to play nice with Spotify

With WWDC a couple of days out, we’re coming up on one year since Apple first showed off its glitzy answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers. It took more than 8 months from then for the HomePod to finally hit shelves, and it took up until a couple of days ago for all the promised functionality to arrive.

Four months since launch, it’s clear Apple delivered some awesome hardware, but there are plenty of features I want to see the HomePod pick up when Apple comes to the stage at its annual developer conference to talk iOS 12. For all the criticisms levied against the device, the most weighty has been the fact that there isn’t even a vague reason to consider buying the speaker unless you are an Apple Music subscriber. For Apple Watch users who want to listen to non-Apple Music tunes the same is true to a lesser degree.

At the very least, the company needs to introduce some functionality to third-party music services through SiriKit that opens up voice commands to play specific songs and user playlists while leaving premium functionality for Apple Music where users can say stuff like “play more songs like this,” and “play something I’d like,” etc., etc. No one is expecting the Apple hardware to be designed around listening to Spotify, but it’s frustrating and confounding that Apple won’t play ball at all.

Apple Music has 50 million subscribers, including those on three-month free trials. Spotify has 170 million monthly active users, 75 million of which are paying for the Premium service. That’s an awfully big chunk of music fans to be ignoring. As nice as I think the HomePod is, it’s a bold (and misguided) strategy to think it’s enough to convince entrenched Spotify playlist lovers that they just need need need to switch so they can buy this $349 speaker.

To be fair, the company seems to have had enough struggles making the speaker work for its own ambitions. Airplay 2 was announced at WWDC last year and was only released a few days ago with the functionality that brings stereo playback to users that have a couple of HomePods.

iOS 12 would be an opportune time for Apple to showcase that the HomePod is open for business to third-party developers — though hopefully in a way that’s more gated than the gimmick dump that Alexa Skills has become. Siri has been pretty light on third-party action for a while now, but it made some notable strides in iOS 11, though that functionality has largely been screen-dependent and thus not available to the HomePod. It’s time to change that, or at least share how they plan to improve the experience over the next year.

Apple hardware giving preferential treatment to Apple services isn’t exactly a surprising turn for the company, but building a smart speaker that asserts fantastic audio as its central premise while ignoring any shred of support for playing songs from the most popular streaming service seems a little anti-consumer and out of Apple’s best interests, as well. It’s taken Apple long enough to bring Siri to the rough place it’s at now on the iPhone, hopefully they can speed up the progress on HomePod and Apple Watch to make life easier for third-party integrations on devices that have so much unrealized potential.

Apple needs to play nice with Spotify

With WWDC a couple of days out, we’re coming up on one year since Apple first showed off its glitzy answer to the Amazon Echo and Google Home smart speakers. It took more than 8 months from then for the HomePod to finally hit shelves, and it took up until a couple of days ago for all the promised functionality to arrive.

Four months since launch, it’s clear Apple delivered some awesome hardware, but there are plenty of features I want to see the HomePod pick up when Apple comes to the stage at its annual developer conference to talk iOS 12. For all the criticisms levied against the device, the most weighty has been the fact that there isn’t even a vague reason to consider buying the speaker unless you are an Apple Music subscriber. For Apple Watch users who want to listen to non-Apple Music tunes the same is true to a lesser degree.

At the very least, the company needs to introduce some functionality to third-party music services through SiriKit that opens up voice commands to play specific songs and user playlists while leaving premium functionality for Apple Music where users can say stuff like “play more songs like this,” and “play something I’d like,” etc., etc. No one is expecting the Apple hardware to be designed around listening to Spotify, but it’s frustrating and confounding that Apple won’t play ball at all.

Apple Music has 50 million subscribers, including those on three-month free trials. Spotify has 170 million monthly active users, 75 million of which are paying for the Premium service. That’s an awfully big chunk of music fans to be ignoring. As nice as I think the HomePod is, it’s a bold (and misguided) strategy to think it’s enough to convince entrenched Spotify playlist lovers that they just need need need to switch so they can buy this $349 speaker.

To be fair, the company seems to have had enough struggles making the speaker work for its own ambitions. Airplay 2 was announced at WWDC last year and was only released a few days ago with the functionality that brings stereo playback to users that have a couple of HomePods.

iOS 12 would be an opportune time for Apple to showcase that the HomePod is open for business to third-party developers — though hopefully in a way that’s more gated than the gimmick dump that Alexa Skills has become. Siri has been pretty light on third-party action for a while now, but it made some notable strides in iOS 11, though that functionality has largely been screen-dependent and thus not available to the HomePod. It’s time to change that, or at least share how they plan to improve the experience over the next year.

Apple hardware giving preferential treatment to Apple services isn’t exactly a surprising turn for the company, but building a smart speaker that asserts fantastic audio as its central premise while ignoring any shred of support for playing songs from the most popular streaming service seems a little anti-consumer and out of Apple’s best interests, as well. It’s taken Apple long enough to bring Siri to the rough place it’s at now on the iPhone, hopefully they can speed up the progress on HomePod and Apple Watch to make life easier for third-party integrations on devices that have so much unrealized potential.

Apple is making a series about Emily Dickinson

Apple announced today that it’s placed a straight-to-series order for Dickinson, a show that will star Hailee Steinfeld as poet Emily Dickinson.

Steinfeld is an actress and singer who was Oscar-nominated for her performance in True Grit and more recently performed in Pitch Perfect 2 and 3. Dickinson, meanwhile, is generally considered one of the great American poets, but given her reputation as an eccentric recluse, her life doesn’t seem to be the stuff of great drama (a recent biopic was called A Quiet Passion).

It sounds like this won’t be a standard biography, however — Dickinson is being billed as a coming-of-age story with a modern sensibility and tone.

The series will be written and executive produced by Alena Smith, who previously wrote for The Affair and The Newsroom. And it will be directed and executive produced by David Gordon Green, best known for directing comedies like Pineapple Express and episodes of HBO’s Vice Principals (though he’s also directed non-comedic films like the recent biopic Stronger).

Dickinson joins a varied list of original series in development at Apple, ranging from a reboot of Steven Spielberg’s Amazing Stories, to a Reese Witherspoon- and Jennifer Anniston-starring series set in the world of morning TV and an adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books. Apple reportedly plans to launch the first shows in this new lineup (presumably as part of a new subscription service) next March.

Plex adds support for podcasts, debuts personalized mobile apps

At CES in January, TechCrunch broke the news that media software maker Plex was planning to expand its service with the addition of new media content, starting with podcasts. Today, it’s making good on that promise by launching support for podcasts into beta, along with a whole new look and more customization options for its Plex mobile apps.

While Plex got its start as a software application for organizing people’s home media collections, it’s been expanding over the past couple of years to add new features in support of cord cutters who want to watch TV via their antenna, and record those shows. It also acquired the streaming news startup Watchup in order to add a dedicated news hub within its app.

Earlier this year, the company spoke of its ambitions to continue adding more types of content to its media center software, including audio and video podcasts, followed by digital, web-first and other longer-form creator content. (It had originally expected to add podcasts in Q1 2018, so this nearly-June launch is a bit of a delay.)

The larger goal, on Plex’s part, is to organize all your media content in one place – from live and recorded TV to your personal media collections of music, photos, and videos, and your news and information – including, now, your favorite podcasts.

The feature, live today in beta, is available on the Plex web platform, Roku, and iOS and Android, with other device support coming soon.

You can browse and search across Plex’s podcast library, filter podcasts by categories, or click into a title to see the details, episode lists, and related podcasts. To follow that podcast, you click the “Add to My Podcasts” button. This will add the podcast to your “On Deck” dashboard, as well.

If the podcast you like isn’t in the Plex catalog, you can add it by entering the feed URL, and Plex will treat it as if it is – it will retrieve all its metadata, related podcasts, and make it searchable. (That’s useful because Plex’s catalog isn’t as robust as others at launch.)

The feature also includes the standard media controls you’d expect, like forward and back and support for variable speed playback, as well as a “mark as played” option, all available through Plex’s upgraded media player. That option can help you transition to Plex’s podcast platform from another app, as you won’t have to lose your place, in terms of what you’ve listened to, and what you’ve not. And it lets you continually mark off any episodes you may have caught elsewhere, or just otherwise want to skip.

Your listening progress is also synced across Plex’s suite of apps.

The feature wasn’t perfect in brief testing, but it was in a pre-launch state, and today it’s only arriving in beta – so it’s too soon to speak to how well it performs as a publicly-facing product.

In a few weeks, Plex will roll out a handful of other features for podcasts, including smart downloading with granular controls for managing the episodes you want to keep on a per show basis (e.g. keep the last three); additional metadata for richer show pages and better discovery options; and podcasts import and export (OPML) so you can move your current subscriptions more easily into Plex.

Along with the launch of podcasts, Plex is updating its mobile apps, too, to offer better customization options.

Now, if you want to listen to your podcasts and news while you’re on the go, on mobile, you can configure the app to show that media on your home screen. Or, if you use the app more for casting your videos to your living room TV, you could bring those favorite shows to the front of the experience instead. And so on.

On this new, customizable home screen you can re-order you content, remove any of its sections (like “Recently Added” or “On Deck,”), or add new ones from elsewhere in the app, including across servers (like Plex Cloud or your local server such as your home PC.)

Plex has also added tabs at the bottom of the screen for switching between your media type (e.g. movies, TV, podcasts.), which are fully customizable, too. You can even customize the default source for each media type.

The addition of podcasts to this more personalized media experience makes sense not only because of how popular podcasts have become, but also because many are tied to the shows you watch – they’re creator commentaries, roundtable discussions, fan chats, critic reviews, and more. It’s easy to imagine, then, moving from watching a show on the TV then heading out and launching the Plex app to listen to the podcast discussing the last episode.

That’s the vision Plex has, at least. However, even with these additions, Plex’s software overall still caters more to the DIY crowd – those who want set up their own antenna, rather than pay for an online TV service like YouTube TV or Sling. And it hasn’t yet solved the problem of media that’s all over the place – favorite shows and movies are strewn across services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO, and Amazon, and it’s hard to know where the things you want to watch reside. Those are still challenges Plex could attack in the future, by becoming a hub that jumps you into streaming catalogs, too.

It’s unclear how well Plex’s expansions have been working to attract new users and paying subscribers.

The company doesn’t break out the latter figure. and it still claims today the same 15 million registered users it had at the beginning of the year. Becoming a podcast player could help bump that number up, though, and introduce more people to Plex’s software, as a result.

Podcasts are in beta on web, mobile and Roku, and the mobile apps are rolling out starting today.

Customer opinions of ISPs somehow drop even lower

Disliking one’s internet provider is such a common condition that it’s hard to imagine that ISPs have anywhere to go but up in the eyes of their customers. Nope! There are new lows ahead, if the latest American Customer Satisfaction Index is any indication. Charts ahead!

The ACSI compiles thousands of interviews with consumers and produce a score for various companies and industries based on a number of metrics. And this year, internet providers fell from last place to last place minus.

(Note: Verizon owns Oath, which owns TechCrunch. Believe me, it doesn’t affect our coverage.)

“An all-time low for the industry that along with subscription TV already had the poorest customer satisfaction among all industries tracked by the ACSI,” the report reads. “Customers are unhappy with the high price of poor service, but many households have limited alternatives as more than half of all Americans have only one choice for high speed broadband.”

Despite what the FCC and broadband companies like to say, few people have more than one good choice for internet provider, unlike even other industries that are dominated by a handful of companies, like mobile. And the service people do have access to isn’t inspiring loyalty.

Pretty much every category saw a drop, despite ardent promises from the likes of Comcast and Cox to improve their customer service and simplify bills and offers.

A sample of ratings the ISPs received – dark blue is the latest.

I myself actually just had a good interaction with Comcast, but because it was just a nice customer service agent helping me navigate the company’s labyrinth of misleading offers and upsells, I consider it as breaking even. Or it would have if my bill hadn’t just nearly doubled without any notification, so in the end it’s probably a negative.

Streaming services and video on demand were included in the survey for the first time this year, and did fairly well. Netflix, PlayStation Vue and Twitch were well thought of, and even the worst-ranked service, Sony’s Crackle, beats most of the perennially disliked pay TV providers. Strangely enough, most of the latter are the very same providers are often the same as the perennially disliked broadband providers. Coincidence? You be the judge.

Worse than social media? These days that’s quite a feat.

Overall, those companies are at the very bottom of the list, below even airlines and insurance companies — and ironically, the TVs that are used to watch the content are at the very top of the heap. Time to step up your game, ISPs.

US news sites are ghosting European readers on GDPR deadline

A cluster of U.S. news websites has gone dark for readers in Europe as the EU’s new privacy laws went into effect on Friday. The ruleset, known as General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), outlines a robust set of requirements that internet companies collecting any personal data on consumers must follow. The consequences are considerable enough that the American media company Tronc decided to block all European readers from its sites rather than risk the ramifications of its apparent noncompliance.

Tronc -owned sites affected by the EU blackout include the Los Angeles Times, The Chicago Tribune, The New York Daily News, The Orlando Sentinel and The Baltimore Sun. Some newspapers owned by Lee Enterprises also blocked European readers, including The St. Louis Post Dispatch and The Arizona Daily Star.

While Tronc deemed its European readership disposable, at least in the short-term, most major national U.S. outlets took a different approach, serving a cleaned-up version of their website or asking users for opt-in consent to use their data. NPR even pointed delighted users toward a plaintext version of their site.

While many of the regional papers that blinked offline for EU users predominantly serve U.S. markets, some are prominent enough to attract an international readership, prompting European users left out in the cold to openly criticize the approach.

Those criticisms are well-deserved. The privacy regulations that GDPR sets in place were first adopted in April 2016, meaning that companies had two years to form a compliance plan before the regulations actually went live today.

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