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Digital Living Room

A More Favorable Spin on Digital Recordings of Web Radio

April 05, 2001|JON HEALEY | jon.healey@latimes.com

If you're old enough to remember the days before disco, you probably recall a time when FM stations would play entire LPs at midnight. The ostensible purpose was to build interest in new records, but the stations were also--nudge, nudge--helping fans make tapes. The DJs would even give a few seconds' warning before dropping the needle so listeners could start their recorders.

Naturally, that practice didn't go over well with the record labels, which were trying to convince the public that home taping was killing music. The labels pressured stations to halt these "album previews," and eventually they did.

It's now apparent that home taping did not, in fact, kill music. But home recording is an even bigger bugaboo for the music industry today, particularly when the recordings are digital.

Against that backdrop, here's a news item: Radio Free Virgin, the online radio arm of the Virgin Group, has released a version of its software that can make digital recordings of RFV Webcasts. In other words, people can save a copy on their computers of what RFV plays on any of its 40-some online stations.

That's a welcome feature to anyone who loves Net radio but doesn't have an always-on Net connection. With the RFV player, users can listen to recordings when they're not online, effectively tuning into Net radio without tying up their phone lines.

Other popular Net radio software actively deters digital recording, or at least doesn't help it. That leaves users with two choices: They can connect a tape player to their computer and make an analog recording, or they can use the unauthorized stream-capturing software that's circulating in the Net underground. The former is legal; the latter is questionable.

So why don't more Net radio players enable recording? Chances are the makers are worried about getting sued. The line between legal and illegal copying is less clear in the digital arena than it is in analog, but it's almost certainly drawn in a place less favorable to consumers.

What Radio Free Virgin wanted to do, General Manager Zach Zalon said, was let listeners enjoy the RFV broadcasts on their own schedules. It's like a TiVo personal TV recorder, only for Internet radio.

Because they're digital, the recordings lose none of the audio quality of RFV's near-CD-quality broadcasts. No commercials are inserted into the audio stream on playback--at least not yet--and the player continues to show the artist, song title and album cover art as it does during the live broadcast.

So much for the plus side.

RFV deliberately limited the capabilities of its new player to stay out of trouble with the labels and music publishers. Those sacrifices illustrate how the shift to digital is a mixed blessing for consumers.

The RFV recorder saves files in a scrambled format so they can be played back only on the computer that recorded them. No burning on CD, no transferring to a portable digital music player or laptop, no e-mailing to friends.

To further deter people from holding on to the files for any length of time, the recorder stores them as uncompressed data. In other words, they're huge, gobbling megabytes of data like handfuls of popcorn.

The files can't be edited, so it's impossible to whittle them down to individual songs. As a result, the occasional dropouts caused by congestion are preserved for your listening pleasure even when you're offline.

Finally, there's no fast-forward or rewind, no skipping ahead to the next song or back to repeat the one just played.

All of these features are consequences of copyright law in the digital age. RFV is licensed as a noninteractive Internet broadcasting service, the kind of license that's available to any would-be Webcaster. If it enabled users to make, archive and trade digital copies of individual songs, it would have to negotiate with the labels and publishers for a different set of licenses. So far, those licenses have been expensive and very difficult to obtain.

To avoid having to win new licenses and charge users subscription fees, RFV had to handicap its own innovation. And any commercial Webcaster that follows RFV's lead on recording is likely to do the same.

On a related front, three major label groups--Warner Music Group, BMG and EMI--announced this week that they will make most of their songs available soon through subscription radio or downloading services. The intermediary will be a new company, MusicNet, the labels formed with RealNetworks of Seattle.

Those songs will be scrambled, so even paying customers will face limits on copying. Rob Glaser, chief executive of Real and chairman of MusicNet, said the labels aren't likely to let subscribers burn the songs they purchase onto CDs, at least not at first. That poses drawbacks for consumers who want to hear music in their car, on the patio, in the bedroom--anywhere, in fact, that's not within earshot of their computer.

Some portable digital audio players might be capable of descrambling the files, but that's a small consolation for subscribers. There's a reason CD recorders are flying off the store shelves faster than MP3 players: CDs remain a much more popular format for storing music than the temporary memory of an expensive hand-held device.

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Times staff writer Jon Healey covers the digital living room.

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