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Start with low-cost recordable storage media-rewritable DVDs and the “flash” memory used in such devices as MP3 players, for example. Add file-compression protocols that make it easy to send music, video and large texts over the Internet. Mix in free software that lets you find and download the files you want from any computer on the Web and copy them to those cheap media. It’s a recipe for the end of copyright protection as we know it. What Napster has done to music is just the beginning; movies, books and games are also being reduced to so many zeroes and ones, shot around the world over the Internet and copied at will.

While the march towards a copyright-less society has seemed all but inevitable to some observers, a new technology developed jointly by IBM, Intel, Toshiba and Matsushita Electric could give control back to copyright owners. The technology, known as Content Protection for Recordable Media, or CPRM, allows content producers to specify how many times a consumer can copy a given file. When you buy and download, say, the latest album from Metallica, your MP3 player would use the rights-protection system and the serial number already on your memory card or disk to encrypt the file and create a unique “key” for it. That key lets the music player know whether or not the file is stored on an authorized disk or memory chip. When you want to listen to your album, the player checks for the digital key; if everything matches up, the file is decrypted and your music will begin to play.

The copy-protection system won’t work unless it is deployed in the original files, in storage media, and in media players. Hence the need for entertainment companies, makers of storage devices and makers of media players all to license the copy-protection technology and implement the system.

Despite this daunting requirement for cooperation among disparate groups, the technology does solve a problem that some experts claimed was all but unsolvable: how to make a protection scheme that is not only cheap to deploy and easy for customers to use, but virtually hack-proof as well. The identification codes used by the copy-protection system have been part of standard storage media for many years. And the number of key combinations they provide is “greater than the number of protons in the universe,” according to Jeffrey Lotspiech, research engineer at IBM’s Almaden Research Center in San Jose, CA.

Not surprisingly, there are already copy-protection strategies on the market. Liquid Audio, a private Silicon Valley company, introduced a copy-protection scheme for digital music in 1996. Microsoft provides a digital-rights manager in its operating system, to protect content sold or accessed in Windows Media formats.

Since there is as yet no clear winner among these technologies, record labels, audio and video distribution sites and device makers are likely to support many or all protection schemes for now. Sony, for example, supports both Microsoft and Liquid Audio and is evaluating the new technology developed by IBM and its corporate partners. Meanwhile, IBM has just started installing CPRM in miniature hard disks used in digital cameras and portable digital music players.

Brad Hunt, chief technology officer of the Motion Picture Association of America, says that member companies are negotiating license agreements for the new copy-protection technology, although he would not give a date for when it would begin appearing. And Warner Music Group has already signed on for all of its record labels.

Of course, any technology that prevents unauthorized copying is going to be controversial. “We’re extremely concerned that hardware manufacturers seem willing to re-architect our computers, building in restrictions that go far beyond current copyright law,” says Robin Gross, staff attorney at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that monitors the electronics industry for threats to personal freedom. “That’s trampling on the rights of consumers.”

Such logic baffles the corporate developers of CPRM, who argue that without these protections, some copyright holders would simply never make their content available to consumers in new digital formats. “We’re not totally nuts,” says Donald Leake Jr., program director for IBM’s copy protection business development. “We’re in a business that depends on consumer trust. These charges that we’re invading people’s privacy make no sense at all. We just want to make sure that the people who want to buy these products can.”

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