The briefing, hosted in Washington by Sens. John D. Rockefeller (D-West Virginia) and Bill Frist (R-Tennessee), is another sign that the cantankerous debate sparked by the proliferation of music--legal and illegal--on the Internet is reaching a crescendo.
Dubbed "Digital Audio: Who Owns the Music," the briefing comes as portable digital audio players such as the Rio 500 and the new Sony Walkman have record executives more worried than ever about rampant theft of their copyrighted assets. Both products are compatible with the "unsecure" and hugely popular MP3 audio compression format.
Slated to address the forum are Hilary Rosen, president of the Recording Industry Association of America; EMusic founder Bob Kohn; and RioPort executive vice president J.D. Heilprin.
RioPort is a subsidiary of Diamond Multimedia, which is owned by graphics chipmaker S3. Diamond makes the Rio 500, a portable device that can play MP3 digital audio files. Rio and its brethren are expected to be popular items this holiday season.
Heilprin said his company was invited to speak by the Forum on Technology and Innovation, the nonpartisan group sponsoring the briefing, which was founded by Rockefeller and Frist to educate Congress and public on technology issues.
EMusic sells downloadable music over the Internet. Kohn was not immediately available to comment.
Heilprin listed some key issues facing the music industry as a result of online distribution, from infrastructure to copyright and consumer demands for interoperability and ease of use.
"We welcome the opportunity to educate congressional staffers on the issues facing the music industry as a result of digital technology," he said. "This is not an opportunity for us to push the particular strategy of our company, but to help set the broader agenda."
Security tops the list
For now, security is perhaps the biggest issue facing the music industry--all the more so thanks to products such as the Rio. The record industry so fears the proliferation of these devices that it sued Diamond last year, claiming the device violated the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, which requires digital recording devices, such as digital audio tapes (DAT), to encode a serial copy management system. The court ruled in favor of Diamond in June.
Heilprin said his company is in close contact with recording executives and described their relations as cordial.
According to the company, Heilprin is in charge of promoting RioPort's secure digital audio format. Secure formats make it more difficult to create unauthorized copies of computer files.
Heilprin added that the company has been working closely with the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), an effort by the recording, electronics, and security industries to set specifications for secure music downloads.
No specifications have been agreed on yet, which means the group is not likely to reach its earlier goal of having secure specifications for the portable devices that will be on store shelves this holiday season. But Heilprin said RioPort is committed to protecting artists' rights.
"When SDMI standards are fully articulated, our devices will comply," Heilprin said.
Beyond creating technical barriers to unauthorized copying, Heilprin said he believes the industry can work together in other ways to reduce the threat of piracy--by improving convenience, for example.
"I believe we can take away the incentive among average consumers to find pirated music," he said. "Now most people find downloading an incredible hassle."