I like to think that humanity's futile attempts to monetize the free consumption of music will, one day, be regarded with the same hilarity as alchemist's attempts to extract gold from urine.
Here's the utopian vision envisaged by a service called Qtrax: you download songs, without paying, and listen to them as often as you like in the knowledge that the artist has been paid. Somehow.
If you've not heard of Qtrax, that's probably because it hasn't launched in Britain yet – but its story is a magnificent example of corporate hubris.
Back in January 2008, a swanky party in Cannes saw a performance by James Blunt herald the launch of the service, which would offer 30 million tracks for free download following deals with all four major record labels.
The next day it transpired that no such deals were in place, prompting bemusement and hilarity in the industry. CEO Allan Kleptisz later spoke of his "humiliation". A relaunch in June was beset by technical problems, and since then Qtrax has become something of a running joke. If nothing else, Kleptisz has displayed remarkable tenacity; today he finally has those deals in place – although the record companies are making it very clear that they're "short-term" only.
Qtrax has a noble aim: to lure illegal downloaders away from their habits. Illegal downloading is attractive, of course, because you get what you want for free. The drawbacks are that it's slow, erratic, and there's an infinitesimally small chance you could be prosecuted.
But Qtrax is also slow and erratic, and while there's no chance of ending up in prison, the process of installing Microsoft Silverlight, then installing the clunky Qtrax player, then finding tracks available to download, and available to play, and waiting for the "individualising" and "acquiring license" processes for each song, and being forced to sit at your computer to listen – it's enough to drive anyone to The Pirate Bay.
Qtrax is based on an assumption that we like sound files, that we like collecting them. We don't. We just like listening to music. There's precious little point in attempting to replicate the mechanism of illegal downloading – not least because to get record company agreement, restrictions have to be put in place which immediately make it more annoying than downloading illegally.
Spotify got it right; it's easy to use, and the fact that the files aren't sitting on your computer doesn't matter. If you want the files, you pay a subscription. Qtrax, meanwhile, expects to reward artists with the proceeds of a few banner adverts, one of which says "Free Music!" in large letters. But these days, "Free Music" has become about as enticing an offer as "Free Compost".
Last year, games designer Jane McGonigal gave a TED talk suggesting that we increase the time we spend playing online games from 3 billion to 27bn hours per week to help solve the world's problems.
Her idea was to use the positive attitudes associated with gaming to help battle obesity, climate change, world conflict and so on – and a story from Seattle's University of Washington indicates that she might be right. After three weeks of playing an online game dedicated to manipulating protein structures called Foldit, a group of gamers have helped to untangle the structure of a key protein in the virus that causes Aids, and are given equal credit to the biochemists in the research report. The only challenge remaining is to persuade the world's gamers to play Foldit instead of World Of Tanks.Reuse content