Will Google remaster its piracy efforts?

It's been an open secret amongst Google Android users after the market for applications (apps) first became available, that certain apps allowed easy searching and downloading of CD quality MP3 music for free.

The flexibility and availability of Google Android mobile handsets at price points starting from sub-$100 has seen them steadily increase their market share worldwide.

Over 550,000 new mobile phones and other devices powered by Google’s Android operating system are being activated each day. According to IDC telecommunications market analyst Mark Novosel, the market share for Android smartphones in Australia was 29.7 per cent as at Q1 2011.

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There are clear signs that Google is finally starting to try to increase mobile user revenues from the current standby of mobile ads, by also selling and renting digital content.

The first sign was Google’s cloud powered music storage service, Google Music, launched in May 2011. Google Music allows users in the USA who have been invited to participate in the beta testing process to upload their “personal music collection to the cloud for streaming to … computer and Android devices”.

A week ago Google started rolling out a major worldwide update to its Android Market app which enables users in the USA to rent movies and buy books, as well as totally revamping the Market user interface to improve its look and highlight quality paid apps through an editor’s choice list.

A spokesman for Google Australia told Technology Spectator that the “new Android Market will be rolling out in the coming weeks to Android 2.2 and higher phones around the world”.

Any registered developer can add their app to the Google Android market as long as they agree to the content policies, which include a warning not to breach intellectual property (IP) rights of others as Google “will respond to clear notices of alleged copyright infringement”.

The current favourite music piracy app amongst Android users is G-Tunes Music Lite, which is featured in the top free Music & Audio category list of Android apps.

Until now Google has appeared to be playing whack a mole with music piracy apps, removing them every now and then only to have the app appear once again with a slightly changed name. As a case in point G-Tunes Music Lite was available in the Google Android Market a few weeks ago as GTunes Music Lite.

Users who download apps like "G-Tunes Music Lite" are taking a risk with their personal data because these kinds of apps often ask for a lot of user permissions such as: “reading and writing contact data, modifying/deleting storage contents and modifying global system settings”.

Tim Scully, CEO of information security specialists Stratsec, told Technology Spectator users should be careful when reading app installation caution notices in the Android Market,  because of all the permissions they ask for.

“You’re going to have some apps there’s no way you should download,” Scully says.

In Google’s defence an Australian spokesman insisted that Android users were protected by “a multi-layered security model [and] applications in violation of our policies are removed from Android Market”.

Producing a hit song has been estimated to cost well over $US1 million. The recording industry has argued that downloading or copying music without paying for it results in less revenue for the artist and the industry to reinvest in the future.

Mark Pesce is an Honorary Associate in the University of Sydney's digital cultures program. He warns that in discussions about music intellectual property there are two perspectives to consider, the artist and the distribution industry.

Making it clear that he prefers the term “audience driven distribution” to piracy, Pesce explains that this behaviour has “become such a part of how we do things that people don’t think about it”.

Pesce agrees with popular sci-fi writer Cory Doctorow that "the biggest threat [content creators] face isn't piracy, it's obscurity".

According to Pesce, smarter artists have figured out that the value of digital bits of music is more as a promotional material rather than as an end in itself. A freely available and widely shared MP3 can increase the number of fans and potentially “purchase enough of their attention” that they buy merchandise or concert tickets, both of which can earn the artist far more than music royalties ever did.

The big question is whether Android users, who have traditionally favoured free apps over paid options, will be willing to rent or buy content from Google and its digital content partners. Especially when Google has to date been somewhat tardy in enforcing its policies around intellectual property breaches by apps in the Android Market. 

Will Google be more pro-active at shutting down Android apps that breach IP laws and its policies in this new era where it has its own skin in the game of digital content sales?