Completely free, legal, high-quality downloads. It's a pipe dream for American music fans. And until this week, it was for the rest of the world, too. Google, Inc., launched free downloads of licensed songs in China Monday, sharing their ad revenue with the labels and giving users access to the catalogs of Sony, Warner, EMI and Universal.
Interestingly, the motivation behind the downloads was market competition. Apparently Google isn't king of the world everywhere as it is in the states. In China, Baidu.com leads the way in the mainland search market -- by more than 60 percent -- leading Google to decide that the missing piece of its strategic puzzle was music.
Right now, the service offers downloads of about 350,000 songs from both Chinese and foreign artists. In the coming months, that number will rise to 1.1 million as Google continues to work with its partner Top100.com, a Chinese music web site co-founded by basketball player Yao Ming.
It's certainly something we didn't think we'd see, particularly coming from Google and with such prominent partners involved -- but don't get too excited. Google has no current plans to expand the service beyond China.
Last year, more than 99 percent of all music files distributed in China were pirated, and its annual $76 million draw from music is just 1 percent of the world industry total. Google hopes that this service will attract users away from illegal download sites, because the music and service will be of a higher quality.