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Michael Robertson's new MP3 venture

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on March 25, 2005
(Issue 2312, Internet Banking)

He gives us ink-stained wretches hope, does Michael Robertson. A former ComputorEdge columnist, Robertson made fame and fortune when he glommed onto the MP3 phenomenon and founded

If not a first-rank technical innovator, Robertson is certainly a shrewd businessman. He realized before most anyone else that the open-source MP3 audio file format was going to change the way people listened to music.

While he owned neither the technology (as mentioned, MP3 is an open-source standard developed by the MPEG working group) nor the songs on the site (the artists retained all copyright), Robertson nevertheless built into a powerhouse site – becoming the first digital-generation entrepreneur to draw the panicked wrath of the music publishing industry.

Robertson did develop one truly innovative service at – the portable library. Shut down by an judge who apparently understood neither copyright law nor the technology at hand, was an ingenious service that allowed you to log any music CDs you owned into the servers – and then play them from any computer that had Internet access.

So if you had broadband connectivity at work, you could scan in your favorite CDs at home, and then listen to them stream from the servers while at work.

I loved that service – the only downside is that fully a third of my music library is on either vinyl or reel to reel tape.

But the record companies panicked, the judge ignored Supreme Court precedent on consumers' rights to have backup copies of all soft materials, and is dead.

At least in its previous form.

On to the present

After selling to Universal for gobs and gobs of money (likely even more than he was paid while writing for ComputorEdge), Robertson took his new wealth and started up Lindows – a company designed to compete in the emerging desktop Linux market.

Again, Robertson wasn't particularly innovative here - Corel had developed a very polished desktop Linux distribution some years earlier before selling it to Xandros, which continues to develop and support it.

But Lindows was just as good as Xandros, and Robertson is a far more savvy marketer than anyone Corel or Xandros has at their disposal - and soon Robertson grew Lindows into one of the most popular Linux brands.

He grew it so well that Microsoft sued Robertson for alleged trademark infringement. Robertson didn't back down, but challenged the original awarding of a trademark to Microsoft for "Windows" in the first place.

Windows is indeed a generic word, and Microsoft's possession of a trademark for it continues to raise eyebrows, but Microsoft and Robertson eventually settled out of court, with Robertson agreeing to change the name of his company to Linspire.

Linspire continues to do well, and Robertson soon started another company – SIPphone, to support voice over Internet technology. But that's its own column, and one we'll get to soon.

More to the point right now is Robertson's latest venture, More purely commercial than the community-oriented was under Robertson's ownership, is going head-to-head with Apple's iTunes – albeit with the same focus on up-and-coming, undiscovered bands that made such a success.

In their shortsighted zeal to chase down every file-sharing adolescent on Earth, the suits in Hollywood are missing the larger point that Robertson's example is pointing toward a future when record companies are no longer necessary in the music distribution business. sells individual songs for 88 cents apiece, undercutting iTunes by about 10 percent.

Interestingly, though, this go-round Robertson isn't dealing directly with bands, as he did with is now the management of this – yes, bands have to sign an exclusive distribution deal with CDBaby, but unlike with the major labels, with, the artists retain all copyright and control. not only contracts with for digital distribution, but also with iTunes, Rhapsody, Napster, MSN Music, AOL's MusicNet, Yahoo MusicMatch and others.

Were the record companies not so busy suing everyone who trades songs online, they might see that CDBaby and are changing the rules in plain view.