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Body to define ‘official’ Internet music standard

Updated: Secure Digital Music Initiative out to beat MP3, Brits get in on act

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The Recording Industry Association of America will today announce a consortium of music and IT companies which will develop a standard system for delivering music via the Internet. The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) is believed to have the backing of EMI, BMG, Sony, Universal (Seagram's music division and the new owner of Polygram) and Time Warner -- the five biggest players in the music business. Technology companies invited to join the SDMI include Intel, Sony, Microsoft, Lucent and IBM (which is already working on a downloadable music system, with the backing of various major music companies' US operations). The SDMI's goal, according to a draft press release obtained by Variety magazine, is to define an "open standard that will ensure compatibility and interoperability among products and services" so that "a legitimate digital marketplace can emerge". In other words, it wants to develop an Internet equivalent of the audio CD standard, Red Book. Whether the SDMI will set out to develop its own system or simply evaluate current offerings, such as Liquid Audio's eponymous format, AT&T's a2b, the infamous MP3 and Dolby's AC3, and propose one as the standard will remain to be seen. But whatever format emerges as the 'industry standard', it's highly questionable over whether it can do what the music business wants it to: displace MP3. While Public Enemy band member Chuck D claims to have been ordered to pull MP3 files from the group's Web site by his record label, DefJam (owner: Sony Music), there doesn't seem a lot else the industry can do to suppress MP3. Artists claim MP3 has the industry running scared because it puts the power back into their hands. But pretty much all the industry needs do to sew up this little loophole is add a digital distribution clause to its recording contracts, as Sony and others have already begun to do (see Sony to re-sign artists in bid for full online rights). No, the problem with MP3 lies not the artists but the punters. Most MP3 users aren't pirates but the modern day equivalent of the kids who used to tape each other's albums. That isn't going to change just because the music industry launches an alternative download format -- especially when the 'official' format doesn't offer any advantage (sound quality, say) over the 'unofficial' one. ®

  • The RIAA's UK counterpart, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), is getting in on the standards act too. The BPI has commissioned Andersen Consulting to investigate the key technologies the industry will need to exploit the market for music sold and delivered via the Internet. The study will also investigate how sales can be monitored -- essential for maintaining the charts.

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