Launched in October 2012, the Cover Art Archive is a joint project between two non-profits; Musicbrainz and the Internet Archive (legally recognized as a library in California). It aims to create a definitive dataset of CD cover art in the public domain. Cover art exists in somewhat contested legal territory. Its copyrighted artwork, but also part of a products visual identity. Some uses are considered “fair use” and legally OK, other uses result in legal action while the majority, it seems, is just ignored/tolerated. Advice on usage seems to boil down to “its OK to use it until its not”.
Fortunately the Internet Archive is willing to hold that legal hot potato and host the images since this fits with libraries mission to “preserve society’s cultural artifacts and to provide access to them” which they are extending into the digital world. Since cover art is such a big part of the identity of a CD, a reliable source for cover art is a big thing for developers of audio applications and to organizations such as libraries who typically have large catalogues of CDs. Displaying cover art is an important part of the user interface of many applications such as Banshee.
While explaining the need for the project, Musicbrainz politely noted that developers needing cover art “can use Amazon product images, but your project needs to be able to abide by their Terms of Service, which doesn’t work for everyone.”
This diplomatic phrasing really undercuts the importance of their project. The problem they are tackling is evident in the first line of the Enrollment section of Amazon’s Terms of service:
Unsuitable applications include those that:
(a) do not have as their principal purpose advertising and marketing the Amazon Site and driving sales of products and services on the Amazon Site;
Apple’s iTunes API has a similar restriction. The difficulty here should be obvious if you are familiar with Lawrence Lessig’s famous Free Culture talk. The refrain he repeats throughout his talk is this:
1. Creativity and innovation always builds on the past.
2. The past always tries to control the creativity that builds on it.
3. Free societies enable the future by limiting the past.
4. Ours is a less and less free society.
Amazon’s product database contains a huge number of cultural artefacts representing a large chunk of our collective past. The restrictions placed on access to that dataset are attempts to control how those in the present build on that past. Whatever you are building, be it a library, or something that acts like one or anything else, the condition for building on this slice of the past is that it must have as its principal purpose driving sales to Amazon. While still in its infancy (there are covers for only 8% of the albums in Musicbrainz), the Cover Art Archive’s aim of providing data without such restrictions is certainly a worthy of support.
So what does support look like? Adding cover art to the archive is done through the Musicbrainz interface. Pick a CD off your shelf and see if Musicbrainz has the artwork for it. Often when you click the “Cover Art” tab you see something like the following:
If you do, scan the CD cover and upload a JPG image to Musicbrainz. Detailed instructions can be found on their site. They will pass it on to the Cover Art Archive. The covers you added will then be available to any developer using the libcoverart library or the Musicbrainz web API in their programs.
Hopefully this project will give developers the unrestricted datasource they need to explore their ideas without feeling compelled to shoehorn in an Amazon/iTunes sales channel… but it will be your contributions that make it possible.