NEW YORK In an effort to put its stamp on what is already a burgeoning multimedia market, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the world's five major recording companies laid out an ambitious goal this week of creating an umbrella standard for securely sending digital music over the Internet. But the announcement was greeted by concern that the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) faces an uphill battle in getting a growing group of chip, software and systems suppliers to sing from the same sheet of music.
RIAA president and chief executive officer Hilary Rosen said the group plans to have its first meeting in February and to prepare a specification in time for SDMI-certified products to ship in fall 1999. But even sources who expressed support for SDMI said the schedule is not realistic given the range of existing compression and security options the effort will have to embrace. Among them is MP3 (MPEG 1, Layer 3), a compression scheme for which 5 million to 10 million audio players have already been downloaded from the Web.
"I expect in the next couple of months that we will see players [speak out] from all different sides of the issues," said Richard Doherty, president of the Envisioneering Group consulting firm (Seaford, N.Y.). "Semiconductor companies and others will say they have technologies that they want to be recognized, and will want to take part in the effort.
"I think the assembly at the first meeting will be a lot bigger than RIAA expects," Doherty said. "They could have government agencies looking for some piece of a digital music purchase."
MP3 is the most entrenched of several techniques for compressing or encrypting audio files for Internet audio players. Other approaches include MPEG-2 Advanced Audio Coding, which is being promoted by many consumer electronics companies for satellite TV as well as CD-quality music; Perceptual Audio Coding (PAC), developed by Bell Labs and currently proposed as a U.S. digital radio standard; the so-called "a2b" music services operated by AT&T; and Liquid Audio, an Internet audio compression and encryption algorithm from the Redwood City, Calif., company of the same name.
In addition, Kobe Steel and Nippon Telegraph and Telephone gave a technology demonstration earlier this year of a portable digital music player dubbed SolidAudio, based on a C5000 series of DSPs from Texas Instruments Inc. It used NTT's Twin VQ compression technology (transform-domain weighted interleave vector quantization) to compress digital music files.
Given the number of players, even SDMI backers say the group's schedule is overly aggressive. "If they intend to have devices out by 1999, that means the devices would have to ship in October, so the specifications would have to be nailed down in March," said Kenneth R. Wirt, vice president of corporate marketing for Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. (San Jose, Calif.), which is enmeshed in a legal battle with the RIAA over its Rio PMP300 MP3 portable player.
"With the first meeting scheduled for February, it's unlikely it will get done in time, unless they've already got a straw-man proposal they plan to unveil at the first meeting," said Wirt.
Diamond will support the SDMI work, he added, but is also moving ahead with its own plans to support other techniques as well. The company is working on a second-generation Rio player and plans to introduce an application programming interface in early 1999 that will allow companies promoting various encryption schemes to work with Rio. The first API will allow users to download, decrypt, export and play music files based on Liquid Audio files on their Rio players.
Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel for RIAA, explained that SDMI's intention is not to choose one digital music technology that will win out over all others, but rather to bring all of the competing technologies to the table. The endgame, Sherman said, will be an open specification with which all of the technologies will interoperate. In fact, RIAA prefers technical competition in the service of innovation, he said.
However, the group was not specific about its stance on various forms of secure transmission, including compression, encryption and digital watermarking.
Clearly, SDMI has big backers, including the heads of BMG Entertainment, EMI Recorded Music, Sony Music Entertainment, Universal Music Group, Warner Bros. and Warner Music Group, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry and the Recording Industry Association of Japan.
And the technology companies already on board are something of a who's who of the industry. Among them were America Online, Aris Technologies, AT&T, Creative Technology Ltd., Diamond Multimedia, Headspace Inc., IBM, Iomega, Liquid Audio, Lucent Technologies, Matsushita, Microsoft, RealNetworks, Samsung Electronics, Sony Corp. of America and Texas Instruments.
Other companies are likely to participate via the Copy Protection Technical Working Group (CPTWG), an ad hoc, voluntary industry group that includes representatives and engineers from Hollywood studios, computer and consumer electronics companies. RIAA's Rosen said SDMI will consult with the CPTWG on the specification.
Despite its broad backing the group has raised hackles in the burgeoning Internet audio world. Many in the MP3 community believe the SDMI is RIAA's last attempt to gain control of the digital music industry that has sprung up behind its back and without its blessing. They say the effort is too late, noting for instance that MP3 has already become a de facto standard because it is the only open, ISO spec available for digitally compressed music.
MP3 has gained its following in part because it is free, and both players and music clips in the format are widely available. Other formats are typically proprietary solutions that require either purchase of software or paying a fee to the company that developed them. More than 100 kinds of MP3 players available, according to the MP3 Association. Software support includes Microsoft's Windows 98 and Net Show, Macromedia Shockwave and RealPlayer.
"MP3 will not be going away," said Paul Goldberg, vice president of audio products and intellectual property at Zoran Corp.
A spokesman from Goodnoise (Palo Alto, Calif.), a company that sells MP3 content over the Internet, said the MP3 Association is currently looking at specs for digital signatures and watermarking, but is making no attempt to provide copyright protection.
Meanwhile, the formation of the SDMI appears to have lit a fire under the CPTWG, motivating that group to turn its attention to digital copyright protection issues for audio, not just video. Some suggest audio has been an afterthought for much of the three years the CPTWG has met.
Alan Bell, program director of digital media standards for IBM's Internet Media Group (Cupertino, Calif.) and a CPTWG leader, told EE Times that the group has discussed the possibility of creating a subgroup to focus on copyright protection issues for digital music. It may go forward with the plan in January, he said.
CPTWG was not part of RIAA's press conference earlier this week, but Bell told EE Times there is considerable interest among CPTWG members to work with the SDMI. He said IBM, Intel and Microsoft have all expressed interest in participating in such a subgroup.
"I think it is very good idea for SDMI and CPTWG to work together, and I expect and hope there will be a relationship between the two," Bell said. He suggested the two groups could ultimately work on ways to mesh activities on various audio and video security schemes to ensure there is a single, efficient copyright protection system not two parallel ones, one for video and one for audio.
Bell noted that while video and audio could share the same encryption technology, they would require different watermarking schemes. For instance, in video, watermarking uses psychovisual effects, while audio relies on psycho-acoustic effects.
"Not until it's clear how all the technologies interlock can the implementers have confidence to move forward with their plans or the content providers have confidence to make their content available," Bell said.
Recording groups have done some work of their own on audio security. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry created a project called MUSE, whose goal was to find a way to embed identifying information within its recordings for security purposes. The MUSE project partners include RIAA, Telstar and the international arms of BMG, EMI, Polygram, Sony, Universal and Warner.
Based on such work, Scott Moskowitz, chief executive officer of Blue Spike Inc. (Miami) and the inventor of the company's Giovanni digital watermarking technology, said he is optimistic SDMI could meet its goals. "They've done a fair amount of testing," he said. "They already understand that security is a software issue, not an issue of a box or processing power of a CPU."
A number of semiconductor companies have also expressed general support for the SDMI effort. Michael Moradzadah, director of strategic planning for home products at Intel Corp. (Santa Clara, Calif.), said Intel has worked closely with the CPTWG and is evaluating SDMI's mission.
Gary Johnson, manager of the digital audio program in Texas Instruments' emerging-markets group in Houston, said TI got involved because it wants to make sure there's enough music available online to create demand for the digital music players for which it plans to supply DSPs.
"We don't back any standard [for digital music] or encryption format," said Johnson. "Our chips are programmable and will work with any of the standards out there. But until the big five labels put their music online, there won't be enough demand for a digital music player with a TI DSP."
Another backer, Lucent Technologies (Murray Hill, N.J.), has worked with the music industry on security initiatives and and its PAC codec. PAC was used as part of a New York-Los Angeles live Internet demonstration last October, where the music industry showcased high-quality audio over the Web and watermarking technology from Cognicity Inc. (Minneapolis).
Junko Yoshida contributed to this report.