SDMI on SDMI: A Better MP3?
by Chris Oakes

3:00 a.m.  8.Jul.99.PDT

he Secure Digital Music Initiative is due to be ratified Thursday night, after 100 companies from the music, consumer electronics, and information technology industries adopt the digital music specification.

The spec, the industry's answer to the widely popular MP3 digital music file format, was initially proposed only four months ago. In order to meet its 30 June deadline, which would get SDMI-compatible portable digital music players in stores by Christmas, the organization adopted a fast track, behind-closed-doors development process.

Now that the spec is near completion, the industry says SDMI brings consumers access to vast amounts of new industry recordings in a digital package.

But some SDMI opponents -- who generally endorse the current de facto standard, MP3 -- see the technology as a status quo tactic of the industry-controlled music economy.

Leonardo Chiariglione, executive director of SDMI, sat down with Wired News to explain the final shape of the format and discuss why he feels SDMI has been misunderstood.

Wired News: How do you define SDMI?

Leonardo Chiariglione: SDMI is a technology infrastructure that provides, essentially, security services. [It] is a technology environment that will enable people to put their [digital] music in protected form if they choose to do so -- so they can implement the business models they think will be the best for them. If I am a new singer and I decide that I want to make my music free, I can.

WN: Today I can buy a CD in a store, take it home and record it, play it on any CD player, listen to it a zillion times for the rest of my life, without paying a another penny. Does SDMI similarly allow for "fair use" of music by me, the consumer?

LC: I don't think it is right [to apply the same standard] to an environment where you copy once, copy twice, copy a million times, and it is exactly the same as the original. So SDMI gives you the solutions: Content has an associated set of user rules. You are the author, I am the consumer, and we have agreed to these rules.

There are user rules, such as "This content can be played three times. This content can be copied to two devices, but only two." These are rules set up by the man who has the rights to the content. So you will implement all sorts of business models.

WN: Do you expect consumers to accept such a radical change in the way they use the music they buy?

LC: There is a new paradigm, no doubt. But if you enter a world where you have the capability of choosing from hundreds of thousand of titles and you can download them, please be aware there are rules. They are adapted to the flexibility these new devices give you, the consumer.

If you stay with CDs and tapes, everything will be the same. It's going to take years in this transition. All the people are not going to download music.

WN: What did it take to get the recording industry to support a digital music format?

LC: [Recording industry companies] have the problem that content can be infinitely replicated and therefore content loses its value. [They] want to create content that will retain its value. Overcoming this obstacle has been a great thing.

The other obstacle was a screening technology. Companies have all this content they want to protect -- even content that that's already been released -- particularly in compact disc format.

WN: How did SDMI overcome these obstacles?

LC: The screening technology in SDMI will only check for existence of a watermark [on newly released music]. So past content will not be watermarked. You have billions of CDs around the world and each individual CD is a source of possible piracy, and [the recording industry] has simply forgotten about that.

One way to protect against piracy of existing CDs would have been to say any SDMI-compliant device will not play MP3. That would have been one possibility, and that has been ruled out. So in that sense, the freedom of the final SDMI spec is total.

On the other hand, we want to create a point of discontinuity where you can create a signal -- a watermark -- for the portable device. If there is not such a signal, the device will play the content unconditionally. If there is such a signal and content has been created illegally, it will not play it.

WN: Compare SDMI to MP3.

LC: SDMI provides specs and device manufacturers can very well decide to have an MP3 player in that device. SDMI is just a framework and MP3 is just a compression method. You can have MP3 files with a security layer around them, and that is SDMI.

It's not MP3 itself, but the way that MP3 is being used that is the problem.

Unless SDMI gives very near the MP3 experience, people are not going to get it. The model of being able to go and find the music and then play it without any hassle: That is the MP3 experience.

So what is the SDMI challenge then? For manufacturers, for publishers: to take over the SDMI spec and implement this dream I am describing. Which is the only way you can provide an alternative to MP3 because MP3 is a great experience.

WN: The SDMI development process has been held behind closed doors, which is an affront to an industry used to a more open standards process.

LC: Yes. We set a goal of four months to develop these specs. And that was the only way possible. I don't like it, and it will not happen again. I have asked the SDMI people to do so, but they have not accepted. The reason is they didn't feel comfortable given such a short development time. This openness issue is something we must improve. We want to start a dialog on that.

WN: How does SDMI address personal privacy concerns, since controlling the consumer's use of music requires identifying the owner of a song in some way?

LC: Why all of sudden has the United States become so concerned with privacy? Privacy was never a concern before the Web. Isn't it more worrisome to know that whatever link I click on a Web page, I'm recorded somewhere, instead of whether I'm downloading "A Hard Day's Night"?

SDMI allows you to move music from this hard disk to a, say, Iomega removable disk, which again has a number associated with it. Can you trace this information to an individual user -- you or me? -- I don't think so.

WN: But at any point such a number might be connected to personally identifiable information -- witness the controversy over the Pentium III ID number and Microsoft's use of ID numbers. Those are privacy concerns to some people -- as is tying a song to a hardware identification number.

LC: If you want to have concern about that, yes. But you should have concerns with the rules associated with content you collect, not about the act of collection. There is a way to resolve this problem, but this is inherent to the networked society we are moving into. It's not specific to music.

WN: The Electronic Frontier Foundation says technology standards like SDMI are increasingly carrying out more than simple technical specifications. They are implementing social values and policy. That now includes SDMI and its control over the use of content and identifying the owner of a piece of music. How do you see the responsibility of SDMI in executing such policies?

LC: My attitude is that the standard should define a technology that is neutral. It is up to another layer to set rules about the use of the technology. I think technology must be agnostic. The standard allows you to define rules, but society -- government --- decides that some particular rules that are technologically possible should be prohibited. SDMI is a technology platform where everything is possible, but it's up to society, not the technology, to decide what's right and what's wrong.