SDMI Chief: Fans Could Face 20 Music Formats

Digital-music leader's assessment runs counter to industry forecasts of simplified future.

The leader of the group creating copy-protection standards for online

music said listeners might have to contend with as many as 20 different

digital-music formats, even after a security standard is adopted.

Leonardo Chiariglione, head of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, said

the recent news that hackers had broken the protection code on DVD audio

would not affect his group's work because many music formats will use

SDMI protection.

"Imagine that somebody breaks a system," he said Thursday from Maui,

Hawaii, where SDMI held its monthly meeting last week. "There will be 10,

20 different systems that are still not broken. Music will be secure in

these other systems."

SDMI is a coalition of record labels and technology companies charged with

creating a protection plan that will encourage labels to release music

online without fear of piracy. The SDMI standard will not be a music

format itself, but a protection technology that can be applied to different

formats, such as MP3 or Windows Media.

Others in the online-music industry believe that as the SDMI standard is

adopted over the next few years, one or two music formats will win out

as the favorites of listeners, labels or both.

"The public doesn't want to have 20 things," said Dan O'Brien, who studies

the Internet and entertainment industries for Forrester Research. "Even

if a computer can figure out the decryption for each of them, people don't

want to hassle with it."

Fans who download music now wrestle with several incompatible formats.

Korn, for instance, recently released their single "Falling Away From Me"

(RealAudio

excerpt) as a free MP3, while Tori Amos sold the "Bliss" track

in Windows Media format. Rage Against the Machine has used RealAudio,

while Sarah McLachlan has used Liquid Audio. Some artists have used multiple

formats.

In the early 1990s Chiariglione led the group that invented the MP3 format,

the most popular way to distribute music online. But because that

near-CD-quality format can be easily copied, many — some say most

— of the MP3s being sent around the Net are pirated material,

distributed without permission of the copyright holder.