Monday, January 28, 2008


Robert Heinlein readers are familiar with the concept of "tinstaafl." Tinstaafl is an acronym for the phrase, "there is no such thing as a free lunch." The concept goes back to the late 1800's when saloons would lay out sandwich fixing and invite patrons to partake of their free lunch. But the lunch was only available to those who purchased, at least, one drink -- which paid for the "free" meal.

Sunday the Internet was all abuzz with an announcement from a new P2P site. The press release from Qtrax trumpeted:


Largest Legal Music Catalog Ever Assembled: 25 t0 30 Million Copyrighted Tracks from Majors & Independents

30 million tracks for free? Sounds great -- but remember tinstaafl. The tracks may be "free" in terms of cash, but potential customers pay in terms convenience and privacy.

NOTE: Subsequent news stories revealed that Qtrax hadn't really got all the majors on board, and the whole business seems to be unraveling online. Nevertheless, I still think it's instructive to take a hard look at the Qtrax model, because as long as old school music biz types are in control, this bad idea will just keep coming back.

If you know you have to pay for that free lunch somehow, it's usually not too difficult to find the catch. The Qtrax site is a little short on information -- their "about" page has this, though.

Music lovers can discover new music and legally download full-length, high-quality versions of their favorite songs while compensating both the artists and the record labels through non-intrusive and relevant advertising. [emphasis mine]

Uh-oh. Embedded advertising is never a good sign. Better take a look at their legal disclaimer:

Qtrax is a free, Gnutella-based file sharing software allowing users around the world to make peer-to-peer connections with each other.

OK. So you have to register with Qtrax and download some new software. And what happens when you do?

Any information collected by us is used to communicate with you in order to tailor our products and services to you effectively. We also use your contact details to inform you of any updates to Qtrax, and for the purpose of targeting advertising on behalf of our advertisers. You agree to accept receipt of banner and pop-up advertising only when using the Qtrax application in return for using our free Qtrax file sharing software.

We reserve the right at all times to monitor, review, retain and/or disclose any information as necessary to satisfy any applicable law, regulation, legal process or governmental request.

- So what does that mean? What kind of monitoring? And clearly there's no expectation of privacy. They've just said they'll roll over on you if the RIAA comes calling.

You agree that in order for Qtrax to work properly, Qtrax will from time to time automatically download updates to your computer in order to update the Qtrax software. You hereby irrevocably consent to allow such automatic updates to take place.

You know, most programs tell you when updates are available, and you have the option of getting them (or not). This software you've brought into you computer will update itself whether you want it to or not (I wonder how hard this thing is to uninstall).

So the music is free as long as you
  1. Install their player which will then be updated automatically (and/or modified) by Qtrax as they desire
  2. Give Qtrax your contact info and demographic information for them to sell to advertisers
  3. Put up with pop-up ads as you navigate your player
  4. Put up with other embedded advertising

There are a few other catches, such as the heavy DRM the files contain that track and report back on your usage to Qtrax, and a mandatory agreement to allow targeted marketing e-mails to come into your mailbox.

This is lunch is not free. And even if it does manage to survive its current trouble, I know I'm not willing to pay the price Qtrax is asking for their free music.

- Ralph

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