Digital Nation: Tomorrow's Players Will Embrace Today's MP3s

Industry coalition adopts standards allowing current MP3s — even illegal ones — on future portable players.

(This is another in a continuing series of reports about music on the Internet.)

Staff Writer Chris Nelson reports:

Stop. Do you hear that faint hum? That's the sound of thousands of music fans ripping

MP3s of every CD in sight to use with future portable players.

On Monday (June 28), a coalition of music and technology companies announced the

adoption of standards for protecting music on new digital players, such as the

Walkman-like Rio MP3 player. While the specs ensure the next generation of players will

filter out pirated copies of future music, those same players will accept today's MP3s

— legal or illegal — without a fight.

"We've accepted that not everything can be protected," said Cary Sherman, senior

executive vice president and general counsel for the Recording Industry Association of


The standards were adopted by a group known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a

consortium of record labels and tech companies that are trying to establish intricate

protective measures that will encourage music companies to sell music online as soon

as possible. Once music is available, the reasoning goes, folks will rush to buy music

and new devices on which to listen to it.

Since February, when an SDMI committee began debating the standards, the decision

over whether SDMI-sanctioned players would accept current MP3s — thousands of

which are passed throughout cyberspace illegally — had been a contentious issue.

Over the past two years, the RIAA has largely fought the popular format, claiming its lack

of copyright protection encourages online piracy. But some tech companies are wary of

protection, saying it convolutes software and alienates consumers.

The decision not to squelch MP3s means that any music currently available on CD can

be transformed, or "ripped," into an MP3, and it will play on tomorrow's portable music


And that's a lot of music. Everything from Johnny Cash's "I Walk the Line" (RealAudio excerpt) to Fatboy

Slim's "Right Here, Right Now" (RealAudio excerpt) is ripe for

ripping. The entire Beatles catalog. Songs by Elvis, Marvin Gaye, the Sex Pistols,

Nirvana and Lauryn Hill. All of Bob Dylan's songs (even those from the sketchy periods).

The SDMI scheme is to roll out the next generation of players in two phases. In the first

stage, players will play anything, be it legitimately obtained or snatched from the filthiest

pirate site on the Net.

Once technology is created to filter out illegal songs — that is, those obtained

without permission of the copyright owner — record

companies will begin releasing music online that is playable only in phase-two devices.

The listener will be asked to upgrade his or her player through a software program.

The phase-two version of a player will not accept new, pirated copies of music. That

means if you buy a song by download, or create a digital copy from a CD you've

purchased, you're good to go and can load it from your computer onto the player. But if

you take it from an illegal website, the player will recognize its illegitimate nature and

shun it like old fish.

Getting more than 200 companies to agree to the standard was a minor miracle,

according to Leonardo Chiariglione, SDMI's executive director and the founder of the

Moving Pictures Experts Group, which invented MP3 technology.

"The record companies had ideas about the level of protection the content should enjoy,"

Chiariglione said Monday from his home in Italy. "On the other hand, the technology

companies were confronted with the need of presenting working solutions that

would satisfy these concerns. It's been an interactive process, where the content

company wants this much, and the technology company will say, 'Too much, please, let's

be reasonable.' "

Final details of the plan were nailed down in Los Angeles during a coffee-fueled session

that began Thursday and didn't wrap up until 6 a.m. Friday, according to

Chiariglione. The standard was adopted in principle, with a final version to be looked at

and ratified during a July 7-8 conference in Los Angeles.

There are those, of course, who argue that any form of copy protection is short-sighted,

even immoral, in the free range of cyberspace. At the second annual MP3 Summit in

San Diego earlier this month, avant-garde musician and computer scientist Jaron Lanier

contended that protection-free systems serve listeners better. He pointed to the software

industry as one that has abandoned the notion that piracy can be fought with

technological locks and keys.

Sherman counters that the SDMI standards are the chief ingredients for a vibrant new

music marketplace. "We're going to maximize the appeal to consumers, and that's the

endgame," he said.

Those who beg to differ will always have their current MP3s, from the dustiest work of

folkie Woody Guthrie and bluesman Charlie Patton to the shiny new songs of the

Chemical Brothers and Beck. That's a lot of ripping to do.

* * *

Blur have adopted M3M Media's new eSingle technology to promote

their new single, "Coffee & TV." The Britpop band recently e-mailed thousands of fans with the

eSingle, a small program that plays both audio and video clips of the track. Listeners can

also download the promo at ...

Out on the comeback trail, rockers the Cult have posted on live tracks

from their April show at the Viper Room in Los Angeles. The 23-minute set is available in

streaming MP3 audio and RealVideo, as well as Microsoft's Windows Media format. The

band will launch a U.S. tour next month. ...

More than 10,000 indie recordings by bands such as Sleater-Kinney, Built

to Spill and the Donnas soon will be for sale in AT&T's secure a2b

downloadable format through custom CD-maker CDuctive ( Earlier

this month, CDuctive began selling many of its tracks in the non-secure MP3 format. The

new offers will significantly boost the number of tracks available in the a2b format.