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Seal of approval proposed for music

Recording studios and other music companies are opening an initiative to improve the quality of digital music formats, including MP3.

Recording studios and other music companies are making another step toward securing online delivery of their products today with an initiative designed to "improve the quality and authenticity of digital music formats," including the controversial MP3 technology.

The Genuine Music open standard is the "first evolutionary step" toward realization of another music industry Net project, the Secure Digital Music Initiative, according to Gerry Kearby, chief executive and cofounder of music delivery technology firm Liquid Audio. The initiative was announced last month by the industry trade group the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which represents the major music labels and Net and technology firms such as America Online, AT&T, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, and Sony.

The initiative seeks to create a specification to fit into any music delivery technology--including the controversial but extremely popular MP3 format (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3)--that would ensure that copyright holders get their due for music downloaded online. The RIAA said it hoped to have the spec in a year's time, but questions remain about the logistics of the initiative.

The Genuine Music Coalition brings together 50 MP3 vendors, record labels, music retailers, Web development firms, broadband providers, producers, consultants, and hardware and software companies "to improve the quality and authenticity of digital music formats including MP3 with new 'Genuine Music' open standard enhancements for digital authentication of music's origin and ownership," according to the coalition. The enhancements include digital certificates and Liquid Audio's digital watermarking tools.

The Genuine Music Mark is "a 'seal of authenticity' designed to ensure the origin and ownership of music delivered and downloaded via the Internet," the coalition said. "It provides consumers with confidence that the content they downloaded is authentic."

A Genuine Music Mark logo will be displayed on content encoded with the technology to show the track is not pirated, the coalition said. Kearby said fans will learn to look for the logo because it means that the track is of high quality and contains certain features such as a link to the artist's home page. Free MP3 files often include tracks that are of poor quality or incomplete.

Content providers and software and hardware makers that participate in the coalition will be able to get the tools to add the digital signature and embed the Liquid Audio digital watermark without paying royalties, the coalition said.

The initiative comes during a heady time in the digital music world as record companies and artists increasingly look for ways to distribute their products online. The resistance toward the MP3 format--which in the past has been met with lawsuits and other forms of opposition--is beginning to wane as analysts and others call it a de facto standard for online music delivery.

As another marker for the legitimization of MP3, music download, news, and information site MP3.com recently received $11 million in financing from the likes of Sequoia Capital, which has funded heavy hitters such as Yahoo and Cisco Systems.

"Extending the current MP3 format to provide authentication and additional artist information via the Genuine Music Mark is the next logical step in the progression our industry," Michael Robertson, chief executive of MP3.com, said in a statement. "MP3 is already a format with over 3 million users. By enhancing the leading music distribution format, this coalition benefits both the artist and the consumer."

Not wanting to miss the MP3 wave, some veterans of Net music delivery have begun to embrace the format. Liquid Audio, for example, said earlier this month that it plans to incorporate technology from Diamond Multimedia Systems into its Liquid Music Player during the first half of the year. With that technological marriage, users of Diamond's Rio portable MP3 player will be able to download and play Liquid's more than 100,000 tracks from major artists after purchasing them.

Kearby noted that MP3 files that contain the Genuine Music technology will be compatible with MP3 players on the market, including Diamond's Rio, Saehan's MPMan, and others.

"'Genuine Music'-marked MP3 files address the music industry's desire for a trusted signature that guarantees legitimacy of the MP3 file," Steve Devick, president of Platinum Entertainment, said in a statement.

Companies that have committed to supporting the coalition include MP3.com, MusicMatch, XING, GoodNoise, Platinum Entertainment, Rykodisc, Vanguard, K-Tel, Intel, Diamond Multimedia, Adaptec, Creative Labs, Tower Records, CDnow, N2K, Best Buy, SonicNet, Billboard, House of Blues, Launch Media, the Knitting Factory, MediaOne, OneHouse, and USWeb.