Commentary: Is the recording industry too greedy?

My sympathy with the recording industry is finally exhausted. The Secure Digital Music Initiative has become an embarrassment to its industry and a barnacle on intellectual property law.

While last week's headlines focused on Hollywood's battle with the publisher of a hacker magazine that posted DVD descrambling code on the Web, hostilities were also escalating in another ugly row that has even broader implications for entertainment content, copyright and antipiracy technologies.

Until recently, you could almost forgive the Secure Digital Music Initiative for degenerating into animosity and chaos. SDMI is the record labels' attempt to prevent the copying of digitally recorded music, and it isn't easy trying to develop antipiracy technologies when there's a Napster around to deliver your products for free to millions of consumers who are only too eager to fill their plates at a free lunch.

But my sympathy is now exhausted. With its recent legal strong-arming of academics, coupled with a growing pattern of disrespect for consumers and outright deceit, SDMI has become an embarrassment to its industry and a barnacle on intellectual property law.

The fact is, there are plenty of ways to protect commercially recorded digital music adequately--that is, to the extent analog recordings are protected today. But SDMI's mother ship, the Recording Industry Association of America, is discovering there simply is no technology that can satisfy its boundless greed. It's becoming clear that the record labels are not content to maintain the status quo; they are determined to destroy rights that consumers have long enjoyed to make legal copies for their own use.

Of course, industry spokesmen publicly deny this. But privately, members of the SDMI consortium, which also includes representatives of the consumer electronics industry and sundry technology companies, say the group's closed meetings have become battlegrounds where device manufacturers and software systems developers frequently engage in screaming matches with record company executives. The most telling point of contention is backward compatibility. RIAA representatives, these members say, have argued that there is no need for tomorrow's CDs to play on today's machines if that's what it takes to thwart illegal copying. Consumer electronics companies are furious, predicting a consumer revolt if people are forced to buy new players for the privilege of facing rigid new copying restrictions.

But the recording industry has become accustomed to reaping huge windfalls as it forces consumers to accept new recording media, standards or form factors every few years--78 rpm records, long-playing albums, prerecorded reel-to-reel-tapes, 8-track tapes, cassette tapes and, finally, CDs. It's not unusual to find older consumers today who have paid three or even four times for the same recording on different media.

But in each of those cases, the consumer was getting a recording of higher fidelity or greater convenience--and therefore of greater perceived value. So the purchase price of a new playback device was acceptable, as was the cost of repurchasing the same recordings in new formats. This time, the industry is going to face a revolt.

Equally disturbing was how SDMI handled its own encryption-breaking contest last year. The idea was simple: The group would demonstrate how good its antipiracy technology was by inviting hackers to try to break its "digital watermark."

Edward W. Felten, an associate professor of computer science at Princeton University, announced last fall that he and colleagues at Rice University and the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center had broken the code, but they declined to enter their findings in the contest because the rules would have prohibited them from publishing their methodology or results. Even so, they declined to describe the process publicly until they felt they could do so without violating copyright laws.

That opportunity presented itself last week in the form of a paper at the Fourth International Information Hiding Workshop, but the researchers backed off after receiving a letter from Matthew Oppenheim, head of litigation at the RIAA, stating that publishing the paper, "could subject you and your research team to actions under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act."

Then, unbelievably, Oppenheim released a prepared statement last week, asserting that SDMI "does not--nor did it ever--intend to bring any legal action against Professor Felten or his co-authors."

That letter sure sounded threatening--and so does the recording industry's disingenuous, win-at-any-cost attitude toward consumers, device makers, software developers and academic researchers in general. This industry seems bent on turning customers into enemies.