In Open Music Initiative, a Possible Rights-Tech Blueprint

headshot-final-200x300With this week’s announcement of the Open Music Initiative (OMI), the music industry is once again embarking on an effort to solve a problem that has long-vexed the business, but particularly since the rise of streaming services: the lack of a shared, secure and trusted way of knowing who owns what and what they’re owed for the use of their music.

Spearheaded by the Berklee College of Music’s Institute for Creative Entrepreneurship (BerkleeICE), along with the MIT Media Lab, brings together a wide range of music industry stakeholders, including the major record companies, music publishers, streaming services, rights organizations, artists representatives and technology developers, among others, to develop a technical framework for data exchange that will enable interoperability of systems and services throughout the music rights ecosystem.

“It’s not a secret that the infrastructure of the music industry, especially the one around creative rights, has not evolved to accommodate for the ways that music is being created and consumed today,” BerkleeICE founding managing director Panos Panay said in a statement. “We want to use the brainpower, neutrality and convening ability of our collective academic institutions, along with broad industry collaboration, to create a shared digital architecture for the modern music business. We believe an open sourced platform around creative rights can yield an innovation dividend for creators and rights holders alike.”

Another key objective of OMI is to avoid the mistakes and pitfalls that have sank previous industry efforts to establish a standardized rights-management infrastructure, such as the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) and the Global Repertoire Database (GRD).

“There are a couple of words that a verboten around here,” Context Labs CEO and Berklee Trustee Dan Harple told “One of them is ‘database.’ We are not building a database. A ledger is not a database. There may be databases that interoperate with OMI, but we’re not building a database.”

Context Labs is providing much of the key technical support for OMI, as well as the strategic design of the multi-stakeholder initiative itself.

The other forbidden word? “Standard.”

“We’re not defining a standard,” Harple said. “A lot of people have been calling it a standard. It’s not a standard.”

omi_graphicWhat it is, according to Harple, is an open-source technical architecture comprised of core functional blocks and APIs that will allow developers and stakeholders to build their own systems and tools that are “OMI compliant,” meaning they are capable of interoperating with other OMI compliant systems, without ceding design or operational control.

“You could have a [Universal Music Group}-specific implementation [of OMI] that reaches into their entire supply chain but doesn’t need to be open or transparent to the whole world,” Harple said.

The open-architecture, multi-stakeholder approach– what Harple calls the OMI Method — is based on studies on innovation ecosystems and the models developed in MIT’s REAL (Regional Entrepreneurial Acceleration Lab), and research at UC Berkeley Haas on Open Innovation.

As such, Harple believes it could be a model for other industries wrestling with legacy rights-management systems in the digital age.

“It’s absolutely suitable for other industries,” he said. “The analog here is really Onix in the book industry.”

Onix for Books is an international metadata exchange protocol that provides a consistent way for publishers, retailers and their supply chain partners to communicate rich information about their products, without requiring all their internal systems to conform to a single data format.

The approach works precisely because it’s not disruptive, according to Harple. “We’re not looking to disrupt or displace anything or anyone. All stakeholders in the ecosystem can benefit from using the shared architecture. It’s not a winner-take-all approach.”

Critically, according to Harple, the API-based approach could also allow rights owners to incorporate legacy content catalogs into a new rights-management framework.

“I really see it as possible to address older content,” Harple said. “I think the labels will be able to claw back some royalties they’re not getting now by going back into their old catalogs” and making them OMI-compliant. “It would be an enterprise-grade project but it’s doable.”

That, alone, should be sufficient incentive for the labels to cooperate.

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