MP3 - Civil liberties group joins the row

The Electronic Frontier Foundation is weighing in on the debate over how music should be distributed online.
Written by Michael Fitzgerald, Contributor

The pioneering U.S. electronic civil rights group on Tuesday held the first meeting of the Consortium for Audiovisual Free Expression, or CAFE, aimed at ensuring that consumers continue to have choices in downloading music from the Internet. The meeting, held at the EFF's headquarters here, drew more than 40 members of the Internet music business, law firms and civil libertarians. "Right now, music can be distributed on the Internet in a variety of formats, and there's a real fear that the recording industry will change that," said Shari Steele, the EFF's director of legal services.

The backdrop for the group's formation is the fight over MP3, a format which is gaining popularity for downloading music from the Internet. The recording industry has said MP3 format makes pirating music too easy, and is working on its own secure recording format, through the Secure Digital Music Initiative, or SDMI. But insiders say the SDMI proposal, due June 30, will greatly limit the ability of consumers to distribute anything that doesn't comply with whatever standard the group proposes, even home-made video tapes or audio recordings. "I don't want to have a law that says I can't make a copy of my own recording of my friend's party to send to other people," said Al-Riaz Adatia, CEO of Media Science, which makes sonique, a Windows media player. Adatia said he expects to support CAFE.

Members of the press were not included in discussions, but EFF officials said that no concrete strategy was set Tuesday. They did say that the group will meet again, and expects to formulate a policy statement within the next 30 days. The EFF's proposals on the table for discussion include an anti-piracy campaign, a series of industry briefings, support for open formats in legal cases, and an "EFF Uncompressed" concert tour, which would feature artists at the forefront of the digital audio issue.

CAFE met on the same day that the SDMI issued a statement about its efforts, which stressed that SDMI's format will not prevent users from playing MP3 and other open formats. One EFF official said that the release was targeted at disrupting CAFE efforts. But the official said that battling the SDMI would not be CAFE's mission. Several attendees agreed with that stance. "I don't want to see this become SDMI vs the EFF," said David Ulmer, general manager of Adaptec Inc.'s software products group. "I think there's a lot of overlap between the two groups." Adaptec is a founding member of the SDMI.

EFF officials said they had invited a number of officials from the recording industry, but none attended. They said they hoped to broaden the group's membership moving forwards. While the EFF has been largely on the sidelines during the early fight over MP3, that will no longer be the case, according to Tara Lemmey, its president and executive director. "This is a very high priority for us -- it's one of the most important things we're working on," she said. "This issue affects both free expression and privacy."

Several attendees at the meeting said they believed the EFF would play a large role in the digital music debate, despite its late entry. "They can definitely make a difference -- they can rally people to causes, and they're very savvy from a legal standpoint," said Michael Robertson of MP3.com.

"Policy doesn't happen in Internet time or industry time," noted Peter Harter, a former Netscape legal counsel who is now vice president of global public policy and standards at emusic. Emusic is the new name for GoodNoise. But one attendee, who asked not to be identified, said, "I don't know if a group this eclectic can do something. They have to be very targeted in what they come up with. We'll have to see what develops."

Driving this is the growing perception that the recording industry will move to greatly restrict what consumers can copy. Several attendees, speaking not for attribution, said the music industry's squabbles over MP3 and other formats is already stifling the online music industry. One attendee said that the SDMI's standards-development process has been largely controlled by the recording industry.

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