Thanks to being picked up by slashdot my article on the potential for Apple’s iCloud being used to discover illegally copied music has gotten quite a lot of attention, including a thorough examination on Ars Technica.
When it came to the factual part of our article, they agreed that indeed it would be possible for Apple to detect shared files in a great many cases. With it settled that in fact Apple could detect illegal copies, the discussion next switches to the more speculative elements. The first of which is whether they would. Even if they had no intent of ever profiting from doing so, I believe they still would. Here is why.
iCloud represents an unprecedented database capable of shedding light on the two biggest unanswered questions in the music business. The first is how much illegal copying really is there? That’s been a question ever since the introduction of affordable home stereo tape recorders. The second, equally significant mystery is how much illegal copying represents music the copier might have otherwise bought, and thus lost sales. iCloud will record not just which songs you own, but which songs you listen to. In other words, you might have downloaded a song because it was free. But if you never listen to it because you don’t actually like it, then it is unlikely that the illegal copy represents lost revenue. Simple curiosity will cause Apple to detect likely illegal downloads in the iCloud.
The second doubt expressed in the Ars Technica Article (and elsewhere) had to do with the ability of those filing copyright lawsuits to get at the data. Those raising those doubts are not exercising enough creativity about what can be proven from the information that will be made public.
Apple has already said that it plans to make aggregate information regarding Music Match public. In other words, Apple says that they will publish how many matches it has made to a particular song. The artists already know the total number of legal copies (downloads and CDs) that they sold. The rough percentage of the music buying population using iCloud will also be known. From those three pieces of information, any competent statistician can present (i) the likelihood of illegal copies of a particular song and (ii) the likely number of such illegal copies. Once the illegality is established, third-party discovery of the details in a civil lawsuit is a real possibility.