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RIAA taking on music downloads

The trade group announces the formation of a consortium charged with developing a standard method of downloading music off the Net.

The Recording Industry Association of America today announced the formation of a consortium of record company and technology executives charged with developing a standard method of downloading music off the Internet.

As reported, a key objective of the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) will be providing a delivery architecture that can provide better protections for copyrighted music. The announcement is set against the backdrop of growing incidences of music piracy online, via easily obtained software that produces high-quality copies.

SDMI is supported by many of the big hitters in the recording industry, including Strauss Zelnick, president and CEO of Bertelsmann's BMG Entertainment; Ken Berry, president of EMI Group's EMI Recorded Music; Thomas Mottola, CEO of Sony Music Entertainment; Doug Morris, CEO of Seagram's Universal Music Group; and Bob Daly and Terry Semel, chairmen and and co-CEOs of Time Warner's Warner Bros. and Warner Music Group.

Several major and independent record labels, as well as several major consumer electronic and technology firms, support the initiative, including America Online, AT&T, IBM, Intel, Lucent, Microsoft, Sony, and Toshiba.

At issue is the record companies' desire

Digital music security
Executives from the major record labels and the RIAA discuss an initiative to create a voluntary digital music security specification by next fall. AP
to retain their control over global music distribution as new technologies threaten to shake the foundation of the business. The consortium faces a market in which recorded music is frequently and freely downloaded--in violation of existing copyright law--using MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3) technology and others.

The RIAA has inititated legal action against violators, as well as against hardware manufacturers that make MP3 players. In addition, record companies allegedly have fought to stop artists from independently posting their albums online using MP3.

Just last week, for example, Public Enemy's Chuck D said he was ordered by his record label, Def Jam, to remove MP3 clips from his site promoting the rap group's upcoming album, Bring The Noise 2000. Chuck D accused the industry of being afraid of the MP3 technology because it gives artists power to curtail the influence of and circumvent powerful record companies.

"MP3 is an important format and our hope is that this initiative will help develop ways for artists who want to use MP3 to have access to it and to be able to secure their music to prosper," said RIAA executive Hilary Rosen.

But yesterday, '80s punk-pop star Billy Idol announced he would use the Web site to reach fans with two new singles.

"Several different technologies will be considered that look to create a distinction technically between a legitimate MP3 file and a non-legitimate file," said the RIAA's Rosen.

Indeed, the RIAA consortium is trying to make itself relevant on the technological front and address the issue of achieving balance between artistic control and copyright law.

"In the past year, a number of companies have come to us with creative ideas involving digital music, inquiring about how those ideas can become reality," Rosen said. She quickly added, however, that the initiative process is not about creating winners or losers in terms of companies or distribution formats.

"The point is to create an open architecture that will support many different business models and competitive interests," she said.

While the MP3 format is not expected to emerge as the SDMI's choice for a safe and secure standard, other candidates exist, including encrypted technology created by Redwood City, California-based Liquid Audio and AT&T, which has a technology known as a2b that has much potential in aiding the battle against piracy because its format cannot be copied.

"The fact they're looking into it is interesting, but it's like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic," said Bruce Haring, author of Off the Charts, a book on the music business. He pointed out that MP3 is currently the most popular downloading system on the Internet.

"Just because certain companies agree there's a standard, it doesn't mean that artists and consumers will agree," he said.

Reuters contributed to this report.