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Tech hides data, ID inside songs

SunnComm Technologies says it has licensed a new product that can hide data, video, software or an identifying watermark inside music files.

SunnComm Technologies, one of several companies developing anti-CD copying products, has licensed a new technique that can hide data, video, software or an identifying watermark inside music files.

The company said Thursday that it is working with Stealth MediaLabs to create a kind of super-watermark that can be embedded inside music files, which--the companies contend--can survive if the song is digitally compressed, rerecorded through an analog connection, or even if the song is recorded off the radio.

SunnComm realized that the watermark-like technology, originally licensed with the intent of helping to bolster copy protection, can also carry other data such as liner notes or pictures, executives said. The company is focusing on the copy-protection uses but also will work with record labels that may be interested in embedding other information.

"The intention was for protecting the security of intellectual property," said SunnComm Chief Operating Officer Bill Whitmore. "Adding pictures and liner notes inside the song is kind of a byproduct."

The new technology, developed originally at the University of Miami, could help SunnComm gain traction in a business that has for years been hampered by concerns about its market viability. Record labels consistently say that they want a way to protect CDs against unauthorized copying, but have so far maintained that the technology available from SunnComm, Macrovision, Sony and a handful of other vendors is not quite ready for prime time.

Typically, labels have been concerned that copy-protected CDs have not worked in all CD players, have been incompatible with some computers, and have sparked considerable backlash from consumers. Nevertheless, labels remain eager to find technology that would avoid these problems.

"While the technology is apparently not quite ready, there is promise for some protective technologies," Hilary Rosen, chief executive of the Recording Industry Association of America, told music retailers at the group's national convention earlier this week. "While there are no specific plans to release such products into the marketplace at this time, if they are produced, record companies will need to work closely with retailers to assure that the proper consumer education and labeling takes place."

The new Stealth MediaLabs technology works by encoding binary data inside the stereo audio signal itself, taking advantage of acoustical properties and human hearing characteristics to make it imperceptible to the listener.

Because the signal is embedded in the sound itself, the data is hard to remove without substantially changing the sound of the song, the companies contend. Earlier types of audio watermarks have typically proven vulnerable to concerted attack, however, one of the factors that helped sink the Secure Digital Music Initiative several years ago.

SunnComm initially intends to market the watermark-like technology to record labels that want to prevent copies of review discs being ripped or copied and put online before albums' release dates, a common occurrence today. Labels could encode individualized information about each recipient of advance discs into the music itself, allowing them to track down whoever released songs in advance, Whitmore said.

"With that anonymity gone, people will be less willing to put advance songs on file-sharing networks," Whitmore said.

However, the Stealth MediaLabs technology allows about 20 kilobits of data per second to be streamed along with the song without increasing its file size. That's not a lot by modern standards, but it's enough to include photographs, Web links, ring tones or other add-ons inside a song that could be decoded by a computer.