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Project Madison potential threat to MP3 and even SDMI

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IBM and the 'big five' global music companies -- Universal, EMI, Bertelsmann, Time-Warner and Sony -- will today finally pull the wraps off Project Madison, the secret Big Blue-led development of a piracy-protected Internet music delivery system. The announcement will also cover the commencement of the first public trial of the technology, due to begin in the next few months, as predicted here. The trial will involve 1000 users in the San Diego, California area, connected via the Road Runner cable TV network. It's not yet clear whether the trail will involve dedicated set-top box hardware or generic PCs hooked into the network through cable modems. Whatever the hardware used, the software underpinning the system has to prevent the user from making copies for friends and colleagues. Whether the software will therefore allow downloaded albums to be copied to a recordable CD remains to be seen. In a shift away from the current Internet music download scene, which is focused on the sale of individual tracks, Madison is geared towards the sale of albums, around 1000 of which will be available for ordering through the Madison Web site. The trial will be watched keenly by the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), the investigative body formed by one of the music industry's trade organisations, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), to propose a universal standard format for downloadable music. The SDMI was launched last year as an attempt to beat proponents of the MP3 audio format, the de facto standard for Internet music distribution, at their own game. The SDMI's chosen format is set to be sufficiently open to win the support of MP3 fans, yet can be used to prevent piracy and so appease the major labels (see Secure Digital Music Initiative launched to kill MP3) In response, 48 MP3 resellers and technology companies formed the Genuine Music Coalition, a broad agreement to add piracy-preventing watermarks to MP3 downloads, again to address the specific concerns of the major labels and the RIAA that MP3 isn't a 'safe' technology (see MP3 companies to launch anti-piracy coalition). Each move shows that both sides are eager to come together and they believe a compromise solution can satisfy music fans, artists, publishers, labels and resellers alike. Incidentally, driving that compromise is Liquid Audio, an audio software specialist whose Liquid Tracks format is very fortunately...) MP3-based yet offers powerful levels of protection against piracy. Liquid Audio recognises that its own format is effectively dead if it's not backed by the SDMI. Given the SDMI's support from the RIAA, it's assumed that it has the backing of the major labels. That may, however, not be the case. If Madison, which on the face if it is entirely independent of the SDMI, is based on proprietary technology, it means the majors are opposed to the kind of compromise the SDMI is pursuing, validating the claims of the MP3 proponents that the majors just want to carve up the music download market for themselves. Unfortunately, even if they largely succeed, there's likely to be enough of an MP3 presence to deflect suggestions that an illegal music cartel is in operation. That is, after all, what a world totally dominated by a format owned and controlled by just five companies would be. ®

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