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Culture

Group pushes one tune for Net music

The Secure Digital Music Initiative makes the first move in stemming the proliferation of illegally pirated music on the Internet.

Will online music submit to the same growing pains as the Internet at large? A standards body thinks so, although it may be tough convincing the MP3 hordes.

If the evolution of the Internet from independent and alternative means of communication to mainstream media is any model, the evolution of the MP3 music format to corporate-sponsored distribution channel is also likely to be accompanied by the complaints of early adopters.

But the Internet has flourished precisely because of corporate support, and so will digital music, an industry group argues, as it makes the first move in stemming the proliferation of illegally pirated music on the Internet. Still, questions remain about the actual implementation of the group's new standard and what impact it will have on sales of portable digital music players.

The Secure Digital Music Initiative, an industry group made up of record labels, manufacturers of portable digital music players, and software developers, today released a specification aimed at encouraging the distribution of legal music via the Internet. At the same time, the standard restricts the ability of individuals to release copy protected music and requires device manufacturers to eventually support technology that will screen out illegally distributed music.

"This is a voluntary set of principles intended to provide a positive consumer experience while facilitating secure digital music," said Jack Lacy, chairman of the SDMI portable device working group.

The specification is a direct response to the uproar from the recording industry against the MP3 format, including a lawsuit filed against device manufacturer Diamond Multimedia aimed at halting the release of the Rio portable MP3 player. After the dismissal of that lawsuit, the industry set to work at creating a standard that would, if not halt the distribution of illegal music, at least encourage legal distribution.

Pirated music, though illegal, has driven sales of the nearly 500,000 portable MP3 players shipped so far. And some observers question whether the new standard will halt the digital music phenomenon before it gets a chance to take off.

Screening technology
In essence, the standard creates a two-tiered model for adoption. Starting with devices released this holiday season, manufacturers must make sure that the players can be upgraded to support screening technology that will not accept pirated or illegal music. The screening technology has yet to be determined, according to Lacy.

"We don't specify how you're supposed to implement the requirements," he said in a conference call this morning. "We specify the behavior that will be met by the implementation."

In addition, the standard restricts to four the number of copies an individual can make of each CD, per each "CD burning" session.

Existing players can be upgraded to play new secure music, and music--even pirated songs--that has already been released should be able to play on SDMI compliant devices, Lacy said. This type of compromise may succeed at attracting record labels and mass market consumers, analysts say, without alienating the early adopters who have created the buzz about MP3 in the first place.

"This is obviously a compromise among a lot of diverse parties," said Kevin Hause, an analyst at International Data Corporation. "But beyond the compromise on the concept, there are still a number of technical hurdles, specifically this screening technology and how its going to fit into new devices and legacy devices."

The specification does not likely spell the end of the glory days of MP3 distribution, he said, but will instead guarantee the support of the large record labels that can bring mass market consumers to the Internet to buy digital music.

"Everyone involved in the industry, from software developers to device makers to Web sites, want the labels to make more content available easily and really kick-start the market beyond early adopters," Hause said. "MP3 is taking off; it's quite successful, but it is more about hype right now than it is about sales."

Lacy insists that the specification will only serve to drive the popularity of digital music, including MP3. "This is not about restricting the old abilities. It's about adding new abilities."