Digital Flashback: Industry Hires Father Of MP3s To Help Control His Creation

Leonardo Chiariglione now heads group developing copy-protection measures for popular audio format.

Leonardo Chiariglione, who helped create MP3 audio technology, has spent the past year spearheading efforts to develop security measures for the format, now widely used to illegally distribute copyrighted songs on the Internet.

One year ago this week, the music industry scored a public-relations coup when it enlisted Chiariglione to head up the Secure Digital Music Initiative, a coalition of record labels and technology companies creating a protection plan aimed at encouraging labels to release music online without fear of piracy.

But back in 1988, Chiariglione was busy founding the Moving Picture Experts Group. Among other things, MPEG created the MP3 audio format. Years later, after high-speed computers and Internet connections became more common, MP3s transformed the Net into the world's biggest jukebox, offering near-CD-quality sound, reasonable download times — and no protection from rampant illicit copying.

Chiariglione's SDMI post is yet another step in his "philosophical evolution, in being somehow at the helm of the transition between media in analog and digital form," he said recently. "We knew that by compressing video and audio, we would dramatically change the foundation of these businesses."

A modern-day renaissance man who speaks seven languages and resides on an Italian vineyard, Chiariglione said copy protection is essential to the digital distribution of music. Without security measures, any track, such Q-Tip's "Vivrant Thing" (RealAudio excerpt), can be pirated globally with the click of a mouse, potentially destroying its value.

"No one likes to have one's property stolen," he said.

The SDMI standard will not itself be a music format, but a protection technology that can be applied to different formats, such as MP3, Liquid Audio or Windows Media. It also will be able to detect pirated files and prevent their playback on SDMI-compliant Walkman-like players.

When the SDMI was formed, in December 1998, the group's goal was to have SDMI-compliant players on the market by Christmas 1999. They missed that goal, but Chiariglione acknowledged in September that he understood from the outset there was little chance the deadline could be met.