Will online music submit to the same growing pains as the Internet at large? A standards body thinks so, although it may be tough convincing the MP3 hordes.
If the evolution of the Internet from independent and
alternative means of communication to mainstream media is any model, the
evolution of the MP3 music format to corporate-sponsored distribution
channel is also likely to be accompanied by the complaints of
But the Internet has flourished precisely because of corporate support, and so
will digital music, an industry group argues, as it makes the first move in
stemming the proliferation of illegally pirated music on the Internet. Still,
questions remain about the actual implementation of the group's new standard and what impact it will have on sales of portable digital music players.
The Secure Digital Music Initiative, an industry group made up of record
labels, manufacturers of portable digital music players, and software
developers, today released a specification aimed at encouraging the
distribution of legal music via the Internet. At the same time, the
standard restricts the ability of individuals to release copy protected
music and requires device manufacturers to eventually support technology
that will screen out illegally distributed music.
"This is a voluntary set of principles intended to provide a positive
consumer experience while facilitating secure digital music," said Jack
Lacy, chairman of the SDMI portable device working group.
The specification is a direct response to the uproar from the recording
industry against the MP3 format, including a lawsuit filed against device
manufacturer Diamond Multimedia aimed at halting the release of the Rio portable MP3 player. After the dismissal of that lawsuit, the industry set
to work at creating a standard that would, if not halt the distribution of
illegal music, at least encourage legal distribution.
Pirated music, though illegal, has driven sales of the nearly 500,000
portable MP3 players shipped so far. And some observers question whether
the new standard will halt the digital music phenomenon before it gets a
chance to take off.
In essence, the standard creates a two-tiered model for adoption. Starting
with devices released this holiday season, manufacturers must make sure
that the players can be upgraded to support screening technology that will
not accept pirated or illegal music. The screening technology has yet to be
determined, according to Lacy.
"We don't specify how you're supposed to implement the requirements," he
said in a conference call this morning. "We specify the behavior that will
be met by the implementation."
In addition, the standard restricts to four the number of copies an
individual can make of each CD, per each "CD burning" session.
Existing players can be upgraded to play new secure music, and music--even
pirated songs--that has already been released should be able to play on
SDMI compliant devices, Lacy said. This type of compromise may succeed at
attracting record labels and mass market consumers, analysts say, without
alienating the early adopters who have created the buzz about MP3 in the
"This is obviously a compromise among a lot of diverse parties," said Kevin
Hause, an analyst at International Data
Corporation. "But beyond the compromise on the concept, there are still
a number of technical hurdles, specifically this screening technology and
how its going to fit into new devices and legacy devices."
The specification does not likely spell the end of the glory days of MP3
distribution, he said, but will instead guarantee the support of the large
record labels that can bring mass market consumers to the Internet to buy
"Everyone involved in the industry, from software developers to device
makers to Web sites, want the labels to make more content available easily
and really kick-start the market beyond early adopters," Hause said. "MP3
is taking off; it's quite successful, but it is more about hype right now
than it is about sales."
Lacy insists that the specification will only serve to drive the
popularity of digital music, including MP3. "This is not about restricting
the old abilities. It's about adding new abilities."