Encryption Conniption - Secure Digital Music Initiative

Protection through Encryption

The Music Industry is lashing back at the implications of RealAudio and MP3. It cringes at the idea that recordings can be uploaded without any regard for copyright or royalty payments.

In an effort to stop the unlawful distribution and sales of pirated music and develop a method for protecting Web-distributed audio files, more than 130 companies and organizations from the consumer electronics, Internet service provider, security technology, and recording industries created a forum at the beginning of 1998 called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (pronounced "sodomy"). The initiative proposed a two-phase plan for developing a publicly available file format for playing, storing, and distributing digital music.

Phase I

Phase I, which was completed in June, 1999, defined a standard for manufacturing portable devices that can play both unprotected and protected music formats. The audio files contain a digital watermark. The detection software is manufactured by Verance ( Portable players that conform to Phase I specs are currently being manufactured.

Phase II

However, the Phase I devices couldn't tell you whether a digital audio file was protected or not. That had to wait until Phase II technology came online.

With the Phase II technology, when you play files that are protected by digital watermarks (SDMI Phase I compliant), the device will automatically let you know that their software can be upgraded to play future Phase II compliant music. If you choose not to upgrade, all of the music that you've compiled can still be played, but the players won't play the new SDMI Phase II compliant releases.

However, it appears that SDMI Phase II is slipping into cryogenic stasis. The last press release from dated May 18, 2001, basically throws in the towel on Phase II. SDMI admitted that there was no concensus for adoption of any combination of the proposed technologies, and that Phase II would fade away, although the digital watemark remains in widespread use.

Felton - the final blow

In response to a challenge posed by SDMI, the digital watermark developed by Verance was cracked by a research team at Princeton led by Professor Edward Felton. Professor Felton intended to present the findings at the Information Hiding conference, co-sponsored by the Naval Research Laboratory.

But rather than pay Professor Felton's team the prize for meeting the challenge, the RIAA, SDMI and Verance collectively threatened to sue Felton if he presented his findings, or otherwise dislosed how he circumvented the SDMI. The basis of SDMI's threaten lawsuit was that Felton was not allowed to publish or present the results because it would run afoul of the DMCA’s anti-circumvention statute.

Felton has critized content companies for attempting to gain unprecedented control over copyrights, including ones that don't necessarily have. He has also compared DRM infrastructures to perpetual motion machines, suggesting that content providers might better spend their time and money on developing piracy tracking applications.