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The Value of Content

The father of the MPEG says a wired world needs a way to acquire-and pay for-content online.

Once upon a time, artists had an easy life. When dancers and singers performed, only people in the immediate vicinity could enjoy the show, and they could be asked to pay up. Then over the centuries came technology-storage, reproduction and transmission-and along with it, the artist’s ever-growing reliance on technological intermediaries, who in turn have relied on government protections. Printing presses meant that books could be reprinted by others and revenues lost (hence Queen Anne’s Copyright Act of 1709). Broadcast meant works could be copied by consumers (hence the European levy on VCRs and blank cassettes).

The last wave of technology may be the most challenging of all. Digital recording is immune from the degradation that plagues analog recording devices: The millionth digital copy is exactly the same as the first. The Internet means a music file can be sent to millions of e-mail addresses with the stroke of a key. My role in this arena began in 1988 when I founded MPEG, the Moving Picture Experts Group (www.cselt.it/mpeg), a committee of the International Organization for Standardization. The MPEG-1 standard, approved in 1992, enables storage of compressed digital video and audio on compact discs; it is the technology behind MP3, a standard used by millions of enthusiasts to compress CD music files and move them over the Internet.

MP3 is great because it overcomes the clumsy traditional way of distributing content based on the sale of a physical object such as a vinyl record or CD. But it has also caused problems-since piracy of music is now widespread on the Internet. Some people justify their actions with a philosophy that holds, “Bits are bits, content should be free.” But, if that is true, how can an artist earn a living? Simple, they say, if music is free it can be used as a vehicle for a message that does have monetary value. But if I were an artist, I would rather live a dignified and penniless life than see my genius used to advertise the footwear of Acme Shoe Manufacturing Co. (Don’t count on my resolve, though. Under the pangs of hunger I might eventually accept it.)

That is why protection technologies applied to digital content are destined to play such an important role in the future of our networked society. When content can no longer be indiscriminately copied, it recovers its lost value. And instead of being the cause of its devaluation, the Internet becomes the place where content’s value is enhanced because everybody can post works in a protected form and be compensated for them. Artists will have a better way to reach their fans, and consumers will be able to acquire the right to consume a piece of work in more ways than it is possible today: Instead of buying a CD, for instance, a consumer might buy the right to 10 playbacks.

This is the reason why, a year ago, I agreed to lead the Secure Digital Music Initiative (www.sdmi.org), a nonprofit organization with 150 corporate members whose shared goal is to develop specifications for secure digital music. So far, SDMI has produced a specification for portable devices that play digital music in a secure form.

However, more technologies are needed for a reliable market in digital music to emerge. One is OPIMA’s (www.iec.ch/opima) specification for the secure download of proprietary protection systems that will enable Web surfers to consume whatever type of protected content they may encounter.

But in a world where every Netizen can be author, performer, producer, value-added reseller and consumer all in one, how will it be possible to acquire the rights for a specific work, possibly worth a few cents, for reuse under some given conditions, unless all these negotiations and transactions are rendered automatic? Fortunately, an answer is beginning to be provided by the Foundation for Intelligent Physical Agents (www.fipa.org), whose Agent Communication Language defines a lingua franca that all intelligent agents will speak, and by MPEG-7, a standard due to be completed by July 2001, with which it will be possible to give semantic descriptions of audio and video objects. What happens when these technologies are combined? Imagine sending your intelligent agent searching for a picture of a lady on the seashore with a background of palm trees, and negotiating a price for it of no more than 50 cents.

Putting these technologies together is no simple task, because each has been developed by different industry groups driven by their own models of the world. This is why MPEG has recently begun developing a new standard called “MPEG-21 Multimedia Framework,” which will integrate two critical objectives: how consumers can search for and get content-directly by themselves or through the use of intelligent agents-and how content can be decoded for consumption according to usage rights. The standards underpinning the MPEG-21 goals are of such importance for enabling this new paradigm as the Web evolves to the broadband of tomorrow, that I am sure no company with a stake in this transition can afford not to be part of this effort.

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