Google sparked controversy earlier this month by deleting Grooveshark’s on-demand music app from the Android Market at the behest of the RIAA. In doing so, the company followed in the footsteps of Apple, which yanked the Grooveshark app from iTunes last August. The main draw of the open-source Android operating system, to some — that it is not centralized, policed, and editorialized, the way iTunes is — could be disappearing as Android matures.
The timing of the Grooveshark app’s removal does seem a bit odd, occurring as it did just after images of Google’s own Android app leaked to the public. Google is in widely-reported negotiations with record labels to license its upcoming cloud-based music locker and music subscription service. Grooveshark claims those negotiations, the leak, and Android’s maturation as an app platform contributed to in its decision to oust the app.
“I see [Google] becoming a more pragmatic company, in letting go of things that used to be considered their ideals,” Grooveshark head of business development Paul Geller told Evolver.fm. “I think that comes with growth. They simply can’t manage an ecosystem like Android without having a central distribution point. And once you have that, you fall prey to the same thing that Apple fell prey to, which is that they want to start curating their apps and giving ones that are less threatening to their business model more attention… I would point to the coincidental leaking of their Android music app the same day the story about us broke.”
In response to the deletion, Geller wrote a widely-read open letter to the industry this week and Grooveshark posted the app on its own web page from which Android users can install it without visiting the Android Market. Doing the same for iPhone requires jailbreaking the phone first, so Android is still a freer spirit than Apple iOS in that regard.
However, for many users, if an Android app doesn’t exist in the official Android Market, it doesn’t exist — just like with iTunes — as evidenced by comments about other deleted music apps on third-party Android app stores. Grooveshark was not alone; Google has removed a slew of other popular music downloading applications within the past few months, sometimes more than once, after developers apparently resubmitted them under different names. Here’s a partial list, truncated to save space:
MP3 Music Box
Music Online Lite
MP3 Music Search and Download
Music Downloader Pro
Music Box Classic
Mp3 Music Searcher
Top Female Aritist [sic] Downloader
Free MP3 Downloader & Player
Those appear to have been hastily-assembled search-and-download tools from small, unestablished developers (witness the word “Aritist” in one of the titles). But Grooveshark has forged deals with a long list of labels, and claims to be completely legal, by adhering to so-called safe harbor rules laid down by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which allow search engines to link to online material if they remove links when asked to do so by copyright holders.
Google itself relies rather heavily on the DMCA. Its most lucrative division is still its search engine, which relies on the law in order to provide search results without being sued for indexing infringing material. Meanwhile, Google’s popular YouTube property allows users to post videos without permission, so long as YouTube removes them when asked, also under the DMCA.
Clearly, Grooveshark, which allows users to upload unlicensed tracks into its system and other users to play them back, plays faster and looser with copyright than, say, iTunes, which lists no unlicensed tracks. Nonetheless, Grooveshark wishes Google would be more specific about why it deleted the app other than alluding to the RIAA’s letter, claiming the lack of such an explanation is very un-Google.
“We would really like some clarity,” said Geller. “If there was actually a problem with the app, we could fix that and get it back in the marketplace. But the fact that they’ve stayed silent on this really just leads us down a strange path with Google — a path that is not really part of their stance, normally… They said they received a complaint from the RIAA, and they didn’t identify what that complaint was, and didn’t say what portion of that complaint would have violated their terms of service.”
For this, Grooveshark blames Google.
“People love to hate the RIAA, and the reality is that that is not the fight we’re looking for,” he added. “We look up to Google here. Google has inspired a lot of companies in our generation, and we think of Google as the people who are supposed to be protecting these things, defending the ideas that are encompassed in notions like ‘safe harbor.’”
Perhaps Google’s decision was just part of the Android Market’s maturation as an app store, and sure, Google’s parallel negotiations with record labels for its cloud music service could have played a part. Businesses are allowed to make business decisions, after all. Still, a curated Android Market that increasingly plays by the same rules as iTunes, the father of the app store as we know it today, could clear the way for another, more open mobile platform to take both of them by surprise, should users grumble about the level of curation now taking place in both major app stores.