Digital Nation: Wading Through Digital-Music Specs

Blueprint released Tuesday for portable digital players raises more questions than it answers.

By unveiling security standards for portable digital-music players Tuesday, a consortium of music and technology companies presumably meant to provide answers about one of the most hotly debated issues in music — the future of digital distribution.

But they may have provoked more questions than they delivered explanations.

For months, the companies have labored in private to create a technology blueprint to govern future players. Existing devices, such as RioPort's Rio 300 or Creative Technology's Nomad MP3 players, contain no security provisions to thwart the piracy that now runs rampant in cyberspace.

To combat piracy, music and tech firms joined forces to generate standards under the heading of the Secure Digital Music Initiative. The first of these standards applies to portable players, the thought being that if secure players are on store shelves this Christmas, major record labels will jump to release music online for them.

That sounds fine, but the devil is in the details. Unfortunately, if he's hiding in the details of the guidelines published Tuesday, he may elude his pursuers forever. The specifications are fraught with tech-speak and acronyms — LCM, PM, PD, SAC, etc.

The document seems to take a view of song files that's radically different from what most folks are used to. It treats copies of songs not as infinite, disposable sets of ones and zeros, but as actual physical copies.

One provision mandates that when using SDMI-compliant software, only four copies of any song may be stored on your computer. Only three of those copies can be transferred to portable players.

"That's to suggest to you that setting up the general filling station model — where you [copy a song] for 100,000 of your closest personal friends — is not the way to go," said Jack Lacy, chair of the SDMI group that devised the standards.

So say, for instance, I rip an MP3 of Wilco's "Candyfloss" (RealAudio excerpt). Right now (leaving all legal issues aside), I could make instant copies and transfer them to as many Rios or websites as I wanted, while keeping the original on my computer. Under the new SDMI guidelines, I could make only four copies before having to go through the ripping process again, and I'd have to transfer the copies off my computer first.

The specs are chock-full of rules, many comprising intricate technical minutiae, that will govern the transfer of music back and forth between players and computers. We're getting closer to seeing the future direction of digital music.

"There are big advantages down the road to consumers," said Ron Moore, general counsel for Rio manufacturer RioPort, which is an SDMI member. Provisions dubbed "check-in" and "check-out" rules will be particularly useful in promoting new business models to encourage sales by download, he said.

"The consumer won't realize that SDMI made that possible," Moore said.

But if we're moving toward the future, our actual arrival date is another question, according to some portable manufacturers. Hock Leow, vice president at Creative Technology, said brick-and-mortar retailers want commitments for products in August and shipments in September.

Considering that Creative, also an SDMI member, intends to run focus groups to gauge consumer response to SDMI-compliant devices, an SDMI version of the Nomad is unlikely to be in stores for the holiday season, Leow said.

Moore said SDMI-compliant Rios could realistically hit stores next winter, but whether that happens before or after Christmas depends on "if all the planets are in alignment."

Even now that the specs are out — you can read them at www.sdmi.org — myriad questions will remain until the standards are vetted, according to Jim Griffin, chief executive officer of Cherry Lane Digital, a company of "entertainment technologists."

Griffin said the standards should be aired in public forums, where they can be debated by groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet watchdog organization.

"Maybe there's something we're all missing that some 14-year old kid will see and say, 'Hey, wait a minute,' " he said.

Of course, SDMI-compliant devices will all be given a hearing of a sort when they hit store shelves, Griffin said. But by that point, millions of dollars will be invested in something that may have fatal flaws that didn't come out during the standards' closed-door creation.

"The public can decide whether they want to buy these devices and buy music in this format," Griffin said. "They will also decide whether to engage in circumventing them or co-opting them."

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