Big Blue is one of the oldest players in the so-called digital rights management business, in which companies create software to block or deter would-be pirates from downloading music online without permission. A 1999 test conducted with most of the major record companies led many analysts to put IBM in a leading role in the young industry.
The advent of Napster and its peers has changed the rules and risks in the online music business. Now IBM and other companies are trying to keep just enough of the Napster model alive to satisfy consumers, while giving copyright holders near-absolute control over the way songs and other media are distributed.
That's a tall order, with a few controversial ways of fulfilling it. IBM's new tack is to allow a song to be copied and sent from person to person as often as consumers want. But built-in restrictions would be triggered by the copies, permitting the next person in line on Napster or an e-mail chain to play the song only once, hear 30 seconds or hear nothing at all.
The model sounds much like what the record companies have been asking for. Analysts say the innovation gives IBM a new leg up in the content-lockup business, but that nothing is settled.
"It's all up in the air," said Alan Weintraub, a Gartner analyst who follows the industry closely. The record companies "are looking at what to do, playing around with different technologies."
As fast as companies try to protect music or other media from hackers and crackers, the underground tends to find a way to break or evade the protections.
It's partly for that reason that the big content companies have yet to settle on a standard. Most of the record companies have announced trials with versions of the several dozen types of copy protection on the market, but none has achieved anything like dominance.
The music and publishing companies also have to persuade consumers that buying songs or books with built-in limitations on sharing and copying even for personal use is a good idea. A backlash among free speech advocates has already begun, with critics arguing that the record companies are trying to expand their copyrights beyond what is already allowed by law.
Most of the debate is still in the theoretical stage; however, since few companies are distributing music that is protected, few devices are made that can read the protections, and a vast library of music is still available on Napster without any protection at all.
Like Napster, but with rules
IBM is betting that Napster in its current form will ultimately go away, making its limited-distribution model more attractive.
"If you assume that Napster will disappear in its current state, what's going to replace it?," asked Scott Burnett, business development executive for IBM Global Media and Entertainment. "That's what we're talking about here."
Copyright owners, such as music companies or publishers, can limit use of a song or book after it has been distributed once. Thus, sending a song through e-mail, or through Napster, could theoretically disable or limit use of the copy that the second person receives.
Copyright owners could give songs or books different types of protection based on geographic region, much as the DVD industry does today.
New plug-ins for RealNetworks' RealJukebox and the MusicMatch Jukebox will allow direct sales and payment options for music protected with the EMMS technology.
Even IBM admits that its technology stands some chance of being hacked, although Burnett called his company's model "among the most secure, if not the most secure" versions on the market. But he, along with many analysts, predicts that only a small proportion of consumers will try to break through copy protection once it's used.
"All this stuff is crackable," Weintraub said. "But there is a level of technology that will keep people honest. I believe that putting some constraints around it will make most people think about what they're doing."
That may be. But other analysts believe that the anarchic distribution of music and other media through peer-to-peer services such as Napster is here to stay.
"I think any content that winds up on the Net will be distributed on parallel networks (such as Napster), and there will be nothing that anyone can do about it," said Rob Batchelder, a Gartner peer-to-peer analyst. "As far as I'm concerned, trying to put out digital rights management is like fighting the war on drugs."