An announcement earlier this week that indicated that China's Baidu would start linking to licensed music downloads may not mark a fundamental change for the company, but according to officials involved in the deal, it is a step in the right direction.
Qtrax, an ad-supported music download service, said on Monday that Baidu would direct some users performing music searches to Qtrax. The statement appeared to mark a big shift for Baidu, which has been criticized for years for allowing its music search results to link to pirated copies of songs on third-party Web sites.
But Qtrax says the deal is only for two specific Baidu portals, which would leave untouched Baidu's MP3 search engine, its most visible section for users looking to download songs. And comments from a Baidu representative on Wednesday did not confirm whether or how it would direct users to Qtrax. "The partnership with Qtrax regards text-based information, such as singer backgrounds; it has nothing to do with the music itself," the Baidu representative said via e-mail.
No links to Qtrax appear to be showing up yet in Baidu's entertainment portal, one of the two where Qtrax said artist biography pages will link to its Web site. But Qtrax, which runs what it calls a global music download service, will not launch its service in China until next month. The Baidu artist pages will include a button linking to Qtrax only for artists in the Qtrax catalogue, Qtrax CEO Allan Klepfisz said in a phone interview.
"It's a small step but a very important step ... a step toward legitimacy," Klepfisz said.
Baidu earlier this year said it was considering revenue splitting or another form of cooperation with music labels. The company said it was working with multiple labels to find a mutually beneficial form for its music search.
Baidu is by far the dominant search engine in China. It handles about two-thirds of online searches performed in the country, with Google in a distant but clear second place, according to local consultancies.
The popularity of Baidu's free music download search helped lead Google to launch its own competing service. Google this year expanded its ad-supported music search, offered only in China, after reaching deals with major music labels. Baidu has followed Google by moving toward a music search based on such deals.
Baidu and Google continue to unroll other services as well to win users from each other. Most recently, Google has enabled search by voice in Mandarin Chinese for Nokia S60 series phones, letting users input search terms by speaking them, the company said this week on its blog. Phones in that series, including the Nokia E71, are popular among well-off Chinese users. Google voice search in Chinese will later be offered for the iPhone and Android-based handsets, the state-run China Daily said, citing a Google engineering vice president.