Secure music, off-key standards?

Piracy-proof digital music players could be on shelves in time for Christmas if the record-industry backed Secure Digital Music Initiative has its way.

But quickness-to-market has its price: Those quick-fix portable players could face compatibility problems in the future. The first meeting of the SDMI -- an organisation charged with creating a digital music format immune to piracy -- set a fast pace for the development of a specification for portable players, said SDMI Executive Director Leonardo Chiariglione in an interview Monday.

Chiariglione, billed as the father of the MPEG digital movie standard, said the SDMI's first goal was to set technical guidelines by June, with the first products on shelves in time for Christmas. But the pace may be too fast. Chiariglione said the SDMI intends to create two standards that may be incompatible -- a quick solution for portable players that can be in products by Christmas, and a more long-term solution that won't be ready until mid-2000. "Backwards compatibility would be good to have," said Chiarglione. "Yet our approach [a portable standard as soon as possible] is the lesser of two evils."

More than 50 representatives from the music industry, consumer electronics companies and data-over-Internet distribution firms gathered last week in Los Angeles for the first meeting of the SDMI. That meeting set the schedule for the process and focused initial efforts on a portable specification; a second meeting in mid-March will firm up the features that the portable design should have.

The focus on portable players can be blamed on multimedia hardware maker Diamond Multimedia Systems. The San Jose, Californian company announced a digital music player, the Rio PMP300, last September -- sparking a controversy over industry-held copyrights and the freewheeling culture of the Internet. The Rio can play between 30 and 60 minutes of near-CD-quality music, whose file format -- known as MP3 -- only takes 1MB per minute of music, allowing for the first time the download of high-quality music from the Internet.

But for the music industry, the innovation came too soon. The "Big Five" music labels -- Sony Music Entertainment, Warner Music Group, BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music and Universal Music Group -- see the new portable player as a Pandora's box. Popularising music from the Internet means millions of popular songs could be copied from CDs and be distributed over the Internet for free.

In response, the industry proposed the Secure Digital Music Initiative in December. But even Chiariglione admits the move came late. "The SDMI process should have been started a year ago," he said. Under the current SDMI schedule, the full solution for securely playing and distributing music will be outlined by March 2000, working models by June, and products planned to hit store shelves by that Christmas.

The full solution will allow a variety of models -- from consumers buying the digital music "bits" and playing the song as many times as they want, to a rental model under which the song is only playable a certain number of times or until a certain date. Music may even become sponsored by advertisers -- making it essentially free. "This opens up many possible business models for distributing music content," said Chiariglione.

Take me to the MP3 debate


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