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Brian Livingston
Digital encryption of audio files is cracked; what will this mean for the software industry?

TWO WEEKS AGO, I reported my readers' feelings about the digital copyright-protection scheme known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative, or SDMI. (See Readers share their opinions about the new SDMI music standard and why it will fail, Aug. 16, page 46.)

In that column, I noted that most readers felt SDMI would fail to replace MP3 as the most popular format for downloading music from the Internet and that SDMI conversion software or devices will quickly become available to remove copy protection.

The following day, on Aug. 17, Microsoft released its new Windows Media 4.0 technology -- sort of a precursor of the type of secure music encoding that SDMI promises.

Just one day later, anonymous programmers released on the Internet a free utility that strips the license information from Windows Media audio (WMA) files. The utility had apparently been under development for a mere month or so, based on beta versions of the WMA technology.

Microsoft publicly acknowledged that this utility, as well as other programs it knows about, can defeat the security features in WMA content.

I'm not a music columnist, and I don't have any passionate opinions about which technology eventually wins the Internet music wars. But I am interested in the portents of this battle for the health of the computer industry and the future of commerce on the Web. In this round, the health of digital copyright protection isn't looking too good.

The name of the free utility that unprotects Windows Media includes a four-letter word that might offend my sensitive readers. This utility unprotects the song for you, after which it can be played on other devices.

One of the first places that word of this utility appeared was the Web site of Dimension Music, a proponent of the MP3 format. Reader Chris Jones first reported this site to me. You can read the details for yourself at

An article by a Dimension Music columnist who identifies himself only as Angelo has a conspiratorial tone but raises important issues.

The problem is, companies aren't allowed to write a serious encryption program, Angelo writes. Involved with the development of SDMI, on some level, is the CIA (Central Intelligence Agency) and the NSA (National Security Agency) to ensure that the encryption format isn't too complicated.

The SDMI folks may not actually be in bed with the NSA (which is so secretive, they say, that the acronym actually stands for No Such Agency). But you don't have to envision a conspiracy theory to realize that the U.S. government's policy against strong encryption may hamper the licensing of digital music -- or digital anything else.

Obviously, if musicians can encrypt a song so that the U.S. government cannot decrypt it, anyone could encrypt any information in the same way. If the United States doesn't allow strong encryption of music, SDMI may be foiled, along with many other types of electronic-commerce business models.

Meanwhile, momentum is building for digital musicians to break away from the centralized distribution model represented by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), a backer of SDMI.

Reader Markian Zadony notes that musical groups receive only about $1 from the sale of a $15 CD, with the RIAA, the record label, and distributors taking the lion's share. This provides a powerful financial incentive for artists -- and perhaps computer programmers? -- to offer their works directly to the public rather than through major houses.

Even some SDMI participants themselves are expressing reservations.

I generally agree with the idea that SDMI, as it is envisioned, is fundamentally flawed, writes Jack Oswald, president and CEO of RPK Security, a member of the 100-company SDMI group. His company is working on a parallel track with RealNetworks to deliver on-the-fly encryption based on a subscription, Webcast model. Details are at

On Aug. 9, the SDMI consortium announced that it has selected a watermark standard called MusiCode from Aris Technologies. For details, see or

The watermark is said to be an inaudible signal that survives in analog as well as digital versions of a song. SDMI-compliant audio players, called Phase 1 devices, should begin appearing in stores by the holidays. RIAA members will begin releasing watermark-encoded, or Phase 2, songs in 2000. Playing a watermarked song will cause a Phase 1 device to display a message asking the listener to upgrade it to play Phase 2 songs.

This battle is far from over, and the outcome may foretell the fate of software itself.


Web Technologies

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