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Sony enters music download fray

The entertainment giant joins the swelling ranks of companies offering technologies designed to deliver music securely online.

Sony today joined the swelling ranks of companies offering technologies designed to deliver music securely online.

Sony said it is developing copyright-management softwares for secure music transfers, beginning with two new content protection technologies bearing the working titles of "MagicGate" for download to portable devices and "OpenMG" for download to PC hard drives.

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The company said it will propose its technologies to the Secure Digital Music Initiative, the project headed by the Recording Industry Association of America to foster copyright protection in delivery of music online. The initiative is scheduled to have its first organizational meeting tomorrow in Los Angeles, according to an RIAA spokeswoman.

The spokeswoman declined comment on Sony's announcement, saying only that the initiative is "a collaborative effort" and that "the RIAA is not going to speak out on any one" proposed technology.

Some observers See related Newsmaker: 
Michael Robertson have expressed concern about the initiative, specifically that its one-year time frame may be unrealistic. Also, some have said that even if the initiative meets its deadline, too much time will have passed and the online music business will have evolved beyond the what the initiative covers.

The market for technologies designed to protect copyrights online is crowded with competing companies, all of which are looking for "standard" status. AT&T Labs' a2b Music has emerged as a major player, having distributed tracks from artists such as Aerosmith, Alanis Morissette, Counting Crows, and Bonnie Raitt.

Liquid Audio, a veteran in the online delivery business, also is a contender. It has been hedging its bets, teaming up with Diamond Multimedia to have its Liquid Tracks available to users of the Rio portable MP3 device and, just yesterday, joining forces with Texas Instruments to develop specifications for a device that ensures copyright protection and would compete with the Rio.

All are out to dethrone MP3 (MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3), which has become a de facto standard for delivering music online, although it faces opposition from the RIAA and others in the industry because it allows for the free distribution of high-quality music easily and without authorization.

Today's announcement is a logical step for Sony, because the company is in the unique position of having its hand in consumer electronics, as well as content creation. Sony offers consumers music it owns and the devices on which to play it--so it makes sense that as online delivery of music becomes more of a reality, Sony would have a hand in the technology that protects copyrights, said Mark Hardie, senior analyst at Forrester Research.

Hardie said that, although Sony is participating in the Secure Digital Music Initiative, "it is not throwing all its eggs into the SDMI basket. Sony is moving at its own pace. They know technology doesn't take a year."

Still, Sony's ubiquity in content and technology could hurt its chances for wide acceptance of its copyright protection technology, Hardie noted. Because Sony already competes directly with other record labels, it is likely that the other studios will look elsewhere for digital download technologies, such as to a2b or Liquid Audio. Sony said it will broadly license its technology.

"MagicGate" uses a microchip embedded in players and media to ensure that protected content is transmitted only between compliant devices. The content is "transmitted and stored in an encrypted format to prevent unauthorized copying, playback, and transmission of protected content," Sony said.

"OpenMG" is designed for music being downloaded onto a PC hard drive. It "employs a hardware module and special software to encrypt digital music content stored on a hard disk drive or similar storage device," Sony said. "Authentication technology is used to ensure that protected content is transmitted only to compliant devices and media, and all content is transmitted in an encrypted format.

This technology allows content to be enjoyed on PCs but prevents unauthorized copying, playback, or transmission, Sony said. The idea behind "MagicGate" and "OpenMG" is to "move" the content rather than copy it, the company added.

Sony also has developed a technology tentatively called "Super MagicGate," which "includes copyright management, electronic distribution, and content protection technologies for distributing digital music content electronically over the Internet and other digital networks," the company said. It "employs network servers that handle content distribution, secured payments, and other functions as well as compliant products such as PCs, portable player/recorders, and IC recording media."