Downloading the Future 

The MP3 Revolution — the End of the Industry as We Know It

Wednesday, Mar 24 1999

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On the World Wide Web, a number of search engines are devoted to nothing but seeking out illegal mp3 files. Most of the mp3 search sites have been under-the-radar operations run by teenagers. Then, in early February, none other than Lycos — the second most visited site on the Internet, which is now in the process of selling itself to Barry Diller’s USA Networks — rolled out a search feature devoted to mp3 (http://mp3.lycos.com).

Piracy has never been easier.

As the spread of mp3 proved increasingly ineluctable, the RIAA adopted a kinder, gentler stance toward the piracy problem. Last December 15, inside the Sony Building in midtown Manhattan, the RIAA assembled the aging bosses of the Big Five on a single stage, each clad in remarkably similar charcoal-gray business attire. On steel-and-black chairs, beneath the klieg lights, the five men flanked RIAA chief exec Hilary Rosen, also dressed darkly, distinguished largely by the fact that her hair was brunette rather than thinning. The purpose of this Lollapalooza for suits: to unveil the RIAA’s SDMI project.

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Rosen made it through her opening statement without dropping the word piracy once. Instead, she announced, "Today, the recording industry is embracing the digital marketplace with new enthusiasm and new optimism."

The cause for optimism? The executives announced that they were forming a consortium — under the auspices of the RIAA — to create a single standard for downloadable music that will be (supposedly) immune to piracy and will allow record labels to actually sell music in the form of Internet downloads without worrying about illegal copying. They plan, perhaps unrealistically, to have this technological innovation in place by the end of the year.

"The idea is for the security features, the encryption technologies and all those other things that protect the content, to ensure that those do not interfere with the consumer’s ability to gain convenient access," says the RIAA’s Cary Sherman. "Security should be invisible to the consumer."

Nor is SDMI the lone effort under way to make the Internet safe for the multinational music corporations. On February 8, one behind-the-scenes endeavor came out of the closet — once again at a New York press conference that brought out high-level executives from the five big labels. The occasion: the unveiling of IBM’s long-rumored, formerly secret "Madison Project."

Madison is IBM and the Big Five’s proj ect to create a mechanism for secure downloading of whole CDs. The Madison Project also includes software that enables buyers to take their downloaded music away from their computers by recording or, in techie terms, "burning" it onto a blank CD.

The trial will run this spring in San Diego, using the local Time-Warner-owned cable-modem system. Needless to say, as with other attempts to impose security, the Madison Project has been met with derision by mp3 advocates. If you can play it, you can record it. And if you can record it, you can encode it as an mp3 file.

"[Security] really is impossible for a variety of reasons," says Steve Grady of GoodNoise. "Until you’re willing to remove CDs from store shelves or change the format that CDs are stored in, which basically means replacing all the hardware, then anybody can walk into a store and in 15 minutes have them up on their Web site in mp3."

Grady also notes that computers play sound through standardized sound cards — which cannot understand "secured" files. The file must be unsecured in order to play. The only way to deal with that sticky issue: Replace â every sound card in every computer.

"And even if you were able to replace all this stuff with one agreed-upon standard," Grady notes, "the people who are motivated to get around it are still going to get around it."

Another "security" leak: the transfer of mp3 files onto portable mp3 players. Portable players promise to bring mp3 headlong into the mainstream by liberating music fans from their computers. Or as one RIAA lawyer rather indelicately put it in court, mp3 expands the market "from those of us who like to spend our lives in front of computers to people who actually have lives."

So nervous about portable mp3 players is the RIAA that last October it sued San Jose–based Diamond Multimedia, maker of the Rio, one of the first mass-marketed hand-held mp3 players.

The lawsuit claims that the Rio promotes music piracy, in violation of the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act. It’s a tough charge to make stick, however, as the Rio does not record. Instead, users must move mp3 files from their computer hard drives into the Rio’s memory using a cable connected to the computer’s printer port.

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