The really important cultural innovations are the ones that blur the definitions of old categories. The VCR clouded the distinction between TV and movies. The World Wide Web punched open the wall between print and video.
Now, a site called Mercora is busy rubbing out the lines separating radio from music downloading. As with radio, Mercora plays music chosen by someone else, according to the DJ's tastes and rules. But as with downloading onto your iPod or adding a CD to your collection, Mercora lets the user decide what music to listen to.
How can both be true? At Mercora.com, you plug an artist or genre into a search engine that combs through about 3 million tunes residing on the computers of the hundreds of thousands of people who have registered with the site. The site produces a list of songs that are playing right that second.
You either listen to the music now or record it onto your computer to play later. That's the downloading part of the technology, but hush -- don't use that word, because it would put Mercora in a wholly different legal category. Mercora likes the powers that be in the entertainment industry to think of this free site as an aggregator of Internet radio stations, not a downloading service. So here's the radio part of the technology: When the song ends, you automatically move to the next tune in the Webcast of the user, or "citizen DJ," whose collection you've tapped into.
Listening to Mercora is like tapping into a million iPods all at once. You can control what you listen to, returning to the search engine after each tune to select your next cut, or you can open yourself to the choices and discoveries of whatever random music lover happens to have been playing the tune you first sought.
That serendipity gives Mercora a huge advantage over highly predictable broadcast radio and over Internet radio stations, which are equally hierarchical (they play, you listen). And since Mercora is both free and vastly more varied in its offerings than even pay satellite radio, the site also threatens XM and Sirius, which charge $12.95 a month for their 100-plus channels of music, talk and news.
But while Mercora appeals to the on-demand mentality of the pay-per-song generation, the service's offerings are not comprehensive. You can be certain at any hour that there'll be plenty of Beatles, Britney or Bob Marley playing, but as often as not, you can type in Charlie Parker, Steely Dan, Funkadelic or anything classical and come up empty. Still, Mercora Vice President Atri Chatterjee says his service offers three times as many pieces of music as iTunes, without charge.
Mercora has managed so far to steer clear of the recording industry's jihad against its customers. The company has avoided legal landmines by paying music publishers the same kind of license fees that Web radio stations pay. "We are effectively a large radio network except that we don't have our own content, but we take other people's content and aggregate it," Chatterjee says.
In the world after traditional radio, there are three ways to get music: Buy it piecemeal from iTunes or a similar downloading service, subscribe to a service such as Real Networks that makes its library available for listening for a monthly fee, or listen to Web radio and save the music for later listening through a company like Mercora.
Why is Mercora legal when file-sharing services such as Grokster have been found to violate copyright law? Mercora's lawyers say the analogy is to TiVo, which lets users time-shift TV shows; the model is still that of a broadcast, not a download in which you own a copy of the song. If you save a song via Mercora, it expires in your computer in 30 days.
Still, although Mercora executives take pains to demonstrate that their service does not promote music piracy, communications lawyers say it's too early to declare any music-sharing models to be in the clear legally. Still, with Internet Walkmen -- devices that make Web-based radio as portable as a transistor radio -- coming soon, Mercora hopes to become a category buster.