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Music Companies Seek New Piracy Protection

Technology: Recording group wants to develop a way to prevent Internet radio songs from being redistributed online.

July 18, 2002|EDMUND SANDERS and JON HEALEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — Opening a new front in the war against digital music piracy, major record companies are asking computer and electronics manufacturers to help stop consumers from sharing songs copied from online radio broadcasts.

The Recording Industry Assn. of America, the industry's main trade group, wants to develop an "audio performance flag," similar to the "broadcast flag" technology being developed to protect digital television programs, Mitch Glazier, senior vice president of the RIAA, disclosed Wednesday at a Commerce Department meeting on piracy.

The goal is to prevent music transmitted by an Internet radio station from being redistributed over the Internet. The flags would act as markers that tell devices not to move any part of the broadcast back onto the Internet.

This approach would require changes to millions of computers and other Internet-connected devices. Because computers convert digital audio files to analog in order to play them, it may be impossible to stop pirates from making fresh recordings with no digital protections.

Internet radio is not a significant source of piracy today, in part because of its inferior sound quality when compared with CDs. But as high-speed Internet connections proliferate and broadcasting costs drop, online stations are expected to shift to higher-fidelity feeds.

Glazier said the RIAA has held "very limited, preliminary discussions" with people in the consumer electronics and information technology industries, but the talks haven't progressed far. The next step, he said, is to ask industry groups and companies more formally to get involved.

The latest effort is one of half a dozen or more by the labels and Hollywood studios, which are eager to deter piracy with technology. Others include inter-industry efforts to stop digital movie files from being copied and to prevent digital TV programs from being transmitted online.

Yet another set of discussions is expected to start in the next few weeks, as the Hollywood studios hold high-level talks about piracy with a group of leading computer and information technology companies. The companies offered to meet with the studios if the discussions also included non-technological approaches to piracy, such as giving consumers a legitimate source of movies online. The Motion Picture Assn. responded late Tuesday with an offer to meet "with no preconditions."

Under federal copyright law, online broadcasters can automatically obtain licenses to the labels' music if they follow certain rules for playlists. They have to pay royalties, but the amount--0.07 cent per song per listener--is much lower than they would have to pay for an on-demand service.

If users record those broadcasts and send the songs over the Net, Glazier said, it undermines the distinction between free or low-cost online radio and on-demand services. That's why the RIAA wants to put some kind of digital marker into Webcasts to prevent them from being redistributed, he said.

Although streams aren't a major piracy problem, the RIAA has an interest in preserving a range of distribution options, said Jonathan Potter of the Digital Media Assn., which represents online audio and video services. "Our industry is all in favor of there being several different types of business with several different price points," said Potter, DiMA's executive director.

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