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Brian Livingston
Readers share their opinions about the new SDMI music standard and why it will fail

MY COLUMN THREE WEEKS ago described the new Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI). This is a proposed standard that the recording industry plans to encode into new music to prevent unauthorized copying. (See "Will the new standard for the music industry signal big changes for PC software makers?" July 26, page 36.)

SDMI-compliant playback devices should begin to appear in stores by the holidays. The first devices, called Phase 1, will play any music that uses today's MP3 format. However, when you first attempt to play a song encoded with security information (a Phase 2 song), you will see a message to upgrade the player. An upgraded device will play Phase 2 and legitimate MP3 songs, but will refuse to play Phase 2 songs that have been converted to MP3 without authorization.

I asked my readers to comment on this standard, particularly its implications for software. The majority of my correspondents believe SDMI will fail -- that SDMI will not replace MP3 as the format in which most listeners download and play digital music.

Many readers compared SDMI to the recently departed Divx format, which allowed owners of Divx players to rent videos on compact discs. Consumers would pay $5 to watch a Divx movie any number of times in 48 hours.

"Divx died because the public wouldn't swallow having to re-pay (potentially over and over) for what it had already 'bought,' " wrote reader Larry Thomas. "This is what I call a 'hostile' product. If I want to make a copy of a song or CD for my car, my upstairs stereo, or any other player covered under the Home Recording Act, I should be able to. Music that prevents this will be perceived by the public as hostile, and won't survive."

Other readers felt SDMI would not stop the piracy of copyrighted music because listeners could simply record an analog copy.

"No matter what security the monopolies use, if you can hear the music with your ears, you can reroute the signal through an analog device and make a digital MP3 track from the analog signal," noted reader Dale Thorn. "This kind of track can be just as high in quality as a pure-digital MP3 recorded at 128[Kbps] from a CD."

Many readers also predicted that SDMI conversion software or devices will quickly become available.

"I predict it will take about 6 minutes for 'universal' SDMI players to appear on the Net, which ignore the 'rules' embedded in SDMI," said Barry Yarkoni. "The more advanced of these 'warez' will make a copy with the rules stripped. This effort by the recording industry is doomed."

Several readers noted that a liberal interpretation of fair-use standards can actually help sell an artist's products.

"The Grateful Dead have long permitted the recording and copying of their concerts for noncommercial use," explained reader Israel Frankel. "They officially extended that policy recently to the MP3 format. Few bands or singers have such a loyal fan following -- or generate comparable revenue."

Finally, reader Jeff Drouhard cited a company that is already implementing SDMI on Microsoft Windows as part of a much larger, trusted transaction scheme.

"Wave Systems has a chip-based rights management solution called Embassy (Embedded Application Security System), which was jointly developed with Hewlett-Packard," Drouhard explained.

Wave-enabled software products, he wrote, "allow the user many purchase options, such as pay-per-use and rent-to-own, in addition to outright purchase. The chip allows for microtransactions and revenue sharing with hardware manufacturers who incorporate the chip in their devices."

More information is available at

I recommend that you go to and read the SDMI specification for yourself. Click "Public Information," then click "Specifications and related documents."

Phil Champon suggested that readers also go to the site and search "sdmi" to see comments and reactions from the other side of the digital-music divide.

Keep sending your comments to me as this evolves, using "SDMI" as the subject line.


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