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Plugging the Music Hole

The show begins. Britney Spears struts onstage as the music blasts. As if on cue, thousands of teenagers hold up their glowing cell phones, so their distant friends can hear, too. In the 21st century, a live concert is only a telephone call away.

To understand copy protection technology, it’s important to understand the nature of what’s being protected: the music. Music is inherently free-slippery sound waves that meander through concert halls, living rooms, and dentist offices and into listeners’ ears. Selling music, in its purist  form, would be like selling air. But engineers know how to restrain the unruly tunes. They carve music into vinyl. They embed it in tape. They seal it between sheets of plastic. And the record companies turn these goods into an industry. So when listeners buy Britney’s latest CD, they aren’t really buying the music, they’re buying a wafer-thin Frisbee. The economy of content is based on physicality.

The Internet has undermined this business model, setting the music free again. Songs are being converted into digital bits, ones and zeroes that go flying over wires, spilling into homes, gushing into dorm rooms. Music fans run to the taps with buckets. And a whole industry is scrambling to stem the flow. The problem is clear. As P.J. McNealy, a senior analyst at Gartner Group, a market research company headquartered in Stamford, CT, puts it: “Music is ultimately not secure because of the way it is delivered.” The mission, according to many in the recording industry, is to plug the delivery hole.

One attempted solution has been the use of technologies that allow content providers to track and control electronic media. DVD-Audio discs and digital-music subscription services, are experimenting with a technique known as digital watermarking-interleaving a file with a pattern of bits that verify authenticity without affecting the music itself. But any effort to make watermarking a common practice for protecting music CDs will, for the next several years at least, run into a big problem: many CD players are unable to read watermarks. A watermarked CD inserted into such an oblivious machine means “there’s no control or protection,” says Joseph Winograd, chief technology officer for Verance, a leading developer of watermarking software.

The recording industry has had similar difficulty deploying its own watermarking standards. This point was brought home painfully in September 2000 when a widely hyped coalition of music and technology companies, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, issued a public challenge to anyone who could defeat its newly minted watermark. Hackers succeeded almost immediately, and the coalition eventually fell apart, leaving an even greater need for a workable copy-protection scheme.

In the absence of a universal watermark-reading standard, the federal government has taken up the cause. Fritz Hollings (D-South Carolina), chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, introduced the controversial Consumer Broadband and Digital Television Promotion Act. This legislation would require CD players and other digital-media devices to incorporate a government-sanctioned copy-protection standard if the private sector does not deliver its own standard within one year of the law’s enactment.

While a standard remains elusive, technology and recording companies are heading down a more accessible and somewhat militant path. They are developing technology that attempts to nip bootlegging in the bud by clamping down on the most ubiquitous form of music distribution. If the compact discs are  copy protected, then the music is no longer free.

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