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Music antipiracy group issues official shrug

The Secure Digital Music Initiative takes another step backward with an admission that members can't yet agree on an industry standard for antipiracy.

The struggling Secure Digital Music Initiative took another big step backward Friday, breaking from its latest meeting with an admission that members can't yet agree on an industry standard for antipiracy.

The group, made up of record labels, technology and consumer electronics companies, has been working for two years to find a way to protect digital music from unauthorized copying as it is released on the Web.

But after early agreements on a first, rudimentary version of its technology, SDMI suffered repeated delays and setbacks in creating the next, more ambitious copy-protection plan. The group broke from its latest meeting Friday with an official statement that "there is currently no consensus for adoption of any combination of the proposed technologies."

"This is not by any means the end of the world," said Paul Jessop, chief technical officer for the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry. "All these technologies can live to fight again another day in other combinations and in other ways."

At its last meeting in January, the group said it was putting its plans on a fast track, hoping to have technology on the market by Christmas. Friday's announcement marks the failure of that effort, as companies with different goals were unable to agree on a technology plan.

"You have a lot of issues going on that people need to watch and get more information on," said Scott Moscowitz, CEO of Blue Spike, which has "watermarking" technology being reviewed by the group. He cited the upcoming release of subscription services by the labels, ongoing litigation over Napster, and other pending issues in the online music world.

The SDMI effort was spotlighted in the press recently for attempts to stop a Princeton University professor from publishing the results of his efforts to break though several anticopying protections posted online as part of a "hacker's challenge."

Professor Edward Felten said his programming team broke through all four proposed watermarking plans posted online. A so-called digital watermark places a unique bit of code onto a file that is theoretically difficult to remove without damaging the quality of the sound or image.

But SDMI representatives said Felten could be breaking federal copyright law if he published the results, and the professor wound up withdrawing a planned paper from a public research forum.

Although the SDMI effort may be increasingly irrelevant in a digital music market beginning to move ahead without it, its original goals of protecting music from online piracy are not.

Companies such as Microsoft and InterTrust are gaining new traction for their "digital rights management" technology, which protects songs from being copied or distributed without permission as the major record labels begin to move online.

Three major music subscription services from Napster and the major music labels are slated to launch this summer or early fall with some anticopying protection built in. None of the efforts have yet given details on which technology they would use.

The SDMI group said it would meet again in September to "reassess technological advances in light of emerging consumer needs."