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Piracy battle begins over digital radio

Consumers, electronics companies oppose RIAA's "un-American" drive to protect radio content.

Consumer groups, electronics companies and record labels squared off Wednesday in the first full public airing of proposals for antipiracy protections for digital radio networks.

Digital radio, which transforms traditional over-the-air broadcasts into the same kind of bits and bytes used in Internet transmissions, promises to boost the audio quality of FM signals to that of a CD. But it also holds out the promise of transforming radio listening in the same way that TiVo hard drive-based recorders have changed TV--by providing powerful recording and playback options.

The new medium has attracted the attention of the Federal Communications Commission, which recently began a proceeding that could end up laying out content protection rules and other regulations for it.

On Wednesday, the Recording Industry Association of America asked the FCC for new antipiracy protections that would prevent listeners from archiving songs without paying for them--and from trading recorded songs online. The RIAA and musicians' trade groups are worried that consumers might one day forgo buying albums or songs from iTunes-like services in favor of recording CD-quality songs off digital radio services.

"We know this (technology) will be attractive to consumers," RIAA Chief Executive Officer Mitch Bainwol said. "For us, it's the challenge that peer-to-peer introduces but made more complex by the fact that there are no viruses, there is no spyware or other file-sharing (problems)."

The debate is shaping up to resemble the earlier discussion around digital television technology, which similarly had movie studios worried that their products would be recorded and traded online. Both debates have pitted powerful forces against each other in Washington, D.C., and have given content companies a key role in helping shape the future of a nascent technological medium.

In digital radio, the RIAA would like to see music transmissions encrypted so that only authorized receivers that follow content protection rules could play the songs. It would also like to see a "flag" inserted in a song's data stream to prevent any recordings made from being transmitted online.

Those ideas have drawn deep opposition from consumer groups and electronics companies, which say the FCC has no congressional mandate to impose content protection on radio broadcasts of any kind.

"Interfering with radio broadcasters' shift to digital broadcasting would choke off advancement and modernization," Gary Shapiro, president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said in a statement released Wednesday. "Not only is that un-American, it's totally without merit."

Consumer groups echoed Shapiro's opposition to the RIAA's proposals.

"No one at the Recording Industry Association of America or the FCC has demonstrated any need whatsoever for content protection on a service that doesn't exist in the U.S.," said Gigi Sohn, co-founder of Public Knowledge, a copyright campaign group that is working with Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America on the issue. "The recording industry is trying to fool the FCC into regulating home taping of radio, which is protected by law."

The first round of comments on the digital radio issues had a deadline of Wednesday for submission to the FCC. Another round of comments is due on July 16.