The man behind the music
By Beth Lipton
Staff Writer, CNET
March 9, 1999, 4:00 a.m. PT

profile Since February 26, traffic has flown to Leonardo Chiariglione's Web page.

That was when the Recording Industry Association of America announced that he would be the executive director of its Secure Digital Music Initiative, the music industry's effort to ensure copyright protection in cyberspace.

Through the initiative, record and technology executives hope to create a specification that could ostensibly be embedded in any online music delivery technology to ensure it is secure. Translation: The stakes are enormous, the pressures intense, and the politics abound.

For example, a working group is on a "fast track" schedule for a specification for portable devices such as Diamond Multimedia's controversial Rio player. And if the group fails, "the Christmas season would be lost," Chiariglione said in an interview with CNET yesterday.

Despite the seemingly long odds, the new leader of the Secure Digital Music Initiative is cautiously confident that the group will be able to meet its ambitious deadlines, even though he will overseeing the process from CSELT--the corporate research center of Telecom Italia--where he has been employed since he got his Ph.D from the University of Tokyo in 1973.

Although he is a long way from Hollywood, Chiariglione is in many ways the ideal person to lead the music industry initiative.

In 1988 he originated the Moving Pictures Experts Group, the ISO standardization activity aimed at the "development of international standards for compression, decompression, processing, and coded representation of moving pictures, audio, and their combination." The association "represents 300 experts representing 20 countries and all the industries having a stake in digital audio and video," Cary Sherman, senior executive vice president and general counsel of the Recording Industry Association of America, told attendees at the SDMI's first meeting as he introduced Chiariglione.

Chiariglione's experience lends itself to the initiative for other reasons as well. Along with his firsthand knowledge about so-called MPEG audio and other download technologies, he is accustomed to creating standards and specifications in a committee format.

MP3 is short for "MPEG 1, Audio Layer 3"--the most complex algorithm set for MPEG 1, "the standard for storage and retrieval of moving pictures and audio on storage media" that was approved in November 1992. Chiariglione described MP3 as an "old" but "good" format, noting with a laugh that MPEG 1's age makes it "practically Jurassic" in the Internet age.

MP3 allows users to download music tracks and save them onto a PC hard drive or a portable player. Because of its grassroots popularity on the Net, the format has become a de facto standard for music downloads.

As fans have embraced it, so have a number of artists who see it as a way to circumvent the politics of the large record labels and distribute their music as they see fit. Allowing music downloads online not only practically eliminates distribution costs, but also cuts out the expenses connected to the manufacturing of CDs.

"The irony is not lost on us that the man who led the process that produced MP3 should be the man we now turn to for help," Sherman said at the SDMI's first meeting last month.

But MP3 itself isn't the issue, Chiariglione said, echoing the sentiment the RIAA expressed when it announced the initiative in December 1998. That concept met with skepticism by many in the online music arena, especially proponents of MP3 such as executives from GoodNoise, an online record company that offers authorized songs for download in the MP3 format for a fee.

Many in the MP3 camp have insisted that the the initiative is the RIAA's attempt to kill MP3. Chiariglione emphatically disagrees, saying the initiative is "an enabler, not a disenabler" for the music business.

He does acknowledge, however, that the initiative has its share of challenges. One is the deadline for the Rio player, which is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the RIAA.

Chiariglione said a working spec for portable devices is due in June. Then it will be tested, and the final spec will be finished by the end of that month. That way, the companies making the portable devices will have products to sell at Christmas that have the protections in them, he said.

Leaders of the working group include representatives from AT&T Labs, whose music technology arm a2b Music created a secure online delivery technology that so far has been embraced by the labels representing the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Alanis Morissette, and Aerosmith. Also leading the group is an executive from Matsushita.

He said a spec for online downloads is expected to be complete by March of next year.

Ultimately, from where he sits at the helm of the SDMI, Chiariglione said the greatest challenge he faces is bringing together the interests of the music and technology fields, facilitating a process that aims to bring the multibillion-dollar music industry into its digital future.