New technology from IBM could restrict what you do with your future digital music.
The company waded into the digital content protection fray Monday, announcing a new version of its Electronic Media Management System that could restrict peer-to-peer file-sharing schemes such as Napster.
Reaction to the announcement is mixed. Representatives from digital music players such as MusicMatch pledge support. Makers of competing Digital Rights Management technologies, such as Microsoft, suggest they were there first. And free-speech advocates at the Electronic Frontier Foundation argue the plan erodes the rights of Internet users.
EMMS supports a number of common multimedia formats, such as MP3, and lets the content owner decide how people who buy the material can use it. Monday's announcement largely focuses on a new EMMS capability called "superdistribution," which limits how many times you can copy a digital music file, explains Steve Canep, vice president of marketing for IBM's global media and entertainment division.
For example, the music labels could decide how its content can be shared. They could let someone who purchases the content share it freely, or they could technologically restrict the number of copies buyers may share. They might even limit the amount of time those copies can exist. EMMS will operate with IBM's controversial Content Protection for Removable Media technology, he says.
Media players on board
Both RealNetworks and MusicMatch support EMMS in the current versions of both RealJukebox and MusicMatch Jukebox.
By using a downloadable plug-in, your version of MusicMatch Jukebox can play any music protected by EMMS, says Bob Ohlweiler, MusicMatch vice president of business development.
Still, MusicMatch and RealNetworks support competing digital rights management technologies too. Both support Intertrust. RealNetworks also supports Microsoft's Windows Media and its Digital Rights Management.
RealNetworks supports a wide variety of DRM and codecs, notes Erika Shaffer, spokesperson. "EMMS takes us further because it's another format we're supporting," Shaffer says.
The competing protection technologies are flexible, MusicMatch's Ohlweiler says. "Record labels and content owners choose which restrictions are enforced."
But DRM technologies are not yet pervasive, especially across devices such as handhelds, portable players, and PCs, he adds.
Microsoft pushes its solution
Microsoft. counters that, saying IBM is late to the DRM audio party.
"IBM is coming to the party about two years too late and without the complete solution," says Michael Aldridge, lead product manager of Microsoft's digital media division. "We introduced what IBM calls superdistribution technology over a year ago."
Microsoft characterizes its solution as a flexible platform that lets you buy, download, and share music, restricted by various rules. For example, a record label could impose preview-only access, which limits your listening to only a snippet of the music. Another competitor, Liquid Audio, also supports limited sharing in its DRM system, as well as regional restrictions on playback.
Microsoft's DRM solution is on the many portable players that support its Windows Media Audio format, Aldridge says. On the other hand, you can play EMMS protected content on MusicMatch or RealJukebox but can't yet transfer the files to a portable player. The vendors still must write the drivers and paths between EMMS and the portable devices for the jukeboxes.
MusicMatch and RealNetworks will work with hardware vendors and IBM to build plug-ins for portable devices to support the new copy-protection technology. But CD burning could be significantly limited and perhaps curtailed under IBM's technology.
To permit CD burning, the copyright holder (such as a record label) needs to allow the customer to expand the compressed digital file to a .wav file - which essentially takes it out of protection, MusicMatch's Ohlweiler says.
Challenging the Web way
Critics of any DRM technologies, including EMMS, accuse the developers and the record labels of trying to change the nature of the Internet.
With plans such as the EMMS, IBM and content providers are setting the rules as to what is fair use, says Robin Gross, staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Fair Use laws let you tape a copy of an audio CD so you can play it in your car, as well as make an MP3 copy for your mobile MP3 player, Gross says. According to the rationale, you bought the content, not the piece of plastic upon which it is stored, so you can use it as you please (short of making 100 copies to sell).
IBM's new technology gives copyright holders far more control than copyright law ever intended, Gross adds. The whole point of copyright is to give economic benefit to the authors, musicians, and creators of published work, not to restrict people from enjoying the material, she notes.
Technology has fans
Despite the limitations protected files could impose, especially if record labels take a heavy-handed approach, IDC media ecommerce analyst Malcolm Maclachlan approves of EMMS.
"EMMS is a straightforward approach to content protection," Maclachlan says. It grants the purchaser unimpeded fair use, while limiting those who get their hands on a free copy, he adds.
The technology's capacity to block Napster-style peer-to-peer file-sharing is an issue, Maclachlan concedes. But he expects Napster's free-for-all approach soon will not exist.
"Overall, I see EMMS as a good move," Maclachlan says. "Intertrust is a security wrapper that's pretty complicated in terms of consumer application, but EMMS has always been about making it simple for consumers." And EMMS should work with MP3s, he adds.
Previously, labels and distributors have had to choose a secure file format, like Advanced Audio Coding or WMA, to have digital rights management protection. EMMS wraps rights management around an audio file and is codec-independent, according to Ohlweiler of MusicMatch.
Of course, if EMMS or any other rights protection system really takes off, hackers will surely try to crack the security.
"Music companies have to face the reality that people can and will make unlimited copies even with these new technologies," EFF's Gross says.
Nonetheless, Maclachlan says if someone can aggregate and deliver secure content in a subscription service, and labels see real revenue, one DRM system will catch on as the standard.
As for EMMS, Microsoft calls IBM's solution an incomplete technology that doesn't address the next big wave of digital media: video.
Just as 2000 was the year of digital audio, 2001 will be the year of video, Microsoft's Aldridge declares. And, he's quick to add, Microsoft can support secure video downloads and streaming today.