Odd Restrictions in New AT&T Locker Service

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There are a few interesting aspects to the new "AT&T Locker" service, a new file storage service for AT&T customers.

First, it is as clear a demonstration as any that "locker" services are a normal Internet service--not something only useful for techies (or pirates). They're just another basic service offered by ISPs, like email. Tech-oriented users will probably avoid using AT&T's file locker (just like they avoid their ISP's email) in favor of more fully-featured and ISP-independent services like Dropbox and SkyDrive. But a service like AT&T's might be able to attract solid user base.

The fact is, file lockers are multi-use technologies that can be used for good things and bad. Not all file lockers work the same way, but in the rush to attack some possible bad actors, many advocates have attempted to characterize file lockers per se as illegitimate services. But it is hard to see how you can draw a hard and fast line between "good" and "bad" file lockers--particularly when the "good" ones, like AT&T Locker or Dropbox, enable sharing files. This new service is just another reminder that online services that can be used for lawful purposes can also be used for copyright infringement--this is the nature of digital technology, and attempts to stop bad behavior could end up limiting lawful behavior, as well.

Unfortunately, there is a little bit of this "throwing the baby out with the bathwater" reaction to file storage services hidden in the fine print to AT&T's new service, that could limit its usefulness.

The user guide for the service states,

The AT&T Locker will not allow you to share music. You can share any other type of media or file, as long as you own the rights to that media or file.

That's right--you can't share music with the file locker, period. Not music you have created, not public domain music, not Creative Commons music--just none of it. Also, a strange assumption is baked in to the terms of service, which states,

You agree You will not use AT&T Locker to distribute or share copyrighted music with others.

This is strange because, apart from music or recordings where the copyright has lapsed, all music is copyrighted. Your garage band's demo tapes are copyrighted. Creative Commons music is copyrighted. Even new music that has been "dedicated to the public domain" is actually copyrighted (though very liberally licensed)--there is no provision in law that allows a copyright to be renounced.

Beyond that, an obvious question here is: Why is music being treated differently than other content? It's reasonable to assume that music-specific restrictions in this case result from discussions with music industry lawyers--there's no principled reason I can think of why AT&T would choose to treat music differently than video, or ebooks, or any other media. If this is the case, it's another sad example of how the music industry, even after many years, is being dragged into the online age kicking and screaming.

Finally, I'll note that AT&T is not giving this service any special treatment not available to competing services, such as an exemption from wireless data caps. This is a good thing, and it means that AT&T service will succeed or fail on its own merits. It might be hobbled, however, by the seemingly-arbitrary restrictions on how it can be used.

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