A new idea in downloading: Music that just fades away

Microsoft studies a system for the rental of songs

Science & Technology

May 30, 2004|By Maureen Ryan | Maureen Ryan,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

We rent homes. We rent cars. We rent movies.

Why not rent music? It might be a very good deal.

We now have more options than ever for buying music - we can purchase CDs from Web sites and stores and download music from online services.

All that is now fairly routine for many entertainment consumers: You go to a site such as Apple's iTunes store or the new Napster and pay around 99 cents for an individual song, which you can store and play on your computer, or burn to a CD and transfer to a portable music device a certain number of times.

Some legal download services such as Rhapsody or Napster let you buy a subscription for about $10-$15 a month so you can download and listen to thousands of songs on your computer. The catch is, you generally can't transfer those songs to a music player or put them on a CD unless you pay an additional $1 per track.

So, what if you could pay a flat monthly fee to download as many songs as you want and transfer them to your music player - but they'd only be playable for a certain length of time?

Before you dismiss the concept out of hand, consider this: Microsoft is exploring it.

The technology giant has announced it's come up with a copyright management system referred to as Janus that will allow music-site subscribers to download as many songs as they want, plus transfer them to portable devices and even cell phones.

But like the ancient Roman god for which the program is named, Janus is two-faced. Everything is peachy during the time period you've paid for - you "own" the song until its expiration date. But once the "use-by" date of your song has passed - poof - your music goes bye-bye.

The downloading world is hotly debating whether people will go for the concept of renting many, many titles at once rather than buying one song at a time. But truth be told, renting in bulk does not seem like such a bad idea.

We all own dozens, or even hundreds, of CDs that we haven't listened to in years. They sit there gathering dust, waiting for the day we say, "Hey, I haven't listened to this CD in the longest time - I need to hear it again." But, generally speaking, we rarely grab those old favorites off the shelf.

And it's not as if a lot of music these days is made to last. Some artists do create albums that are complete artistic statements, and those are the sorts of works their fans want to own permanently. But those kinds of musicians have always been in the minority.

So if - and this is a big if - it ends up being cheaper to rent Beyonce's latest hit and listen to it incessantly until it expires, why not?

We're already trained to rent movies, and in the long run, video could present an even better use for Janus, which may be Microsoft's real goal.

According to news reports, Disney, America Online, MovieLink and CinemaNow are just a few of the big-time entertainment conglomerates that are considering using Janus software for video.

As technology and Internet connections improve, downloading movies becomes more and more viable. Video downloads with expiration dates - in essence, downloaded rentals - can't be far behind.

If done right, the rental model presents connected consumers with yet another entertainment option.

The Chicago Tribune is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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