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SDMI juggles to quash copy protection confusion

Sop to music industry could delay compliant players past Xmas

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The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) attempted on Friday to convince the music and IT industries that its plans weren't in tatters after it emerged the body's scheme for protecting data held on portable music players was hopelessly confused. The SDMI responded with and an announcement that it would soon make an announcement on this issue. At that point, it will reveal exactly what watermarking technology will be used and how that technology can be licensed by consumer electronics companies. The confusion in the SDMI's scheme centres on its plan to offer a two-stage process. The first, Phase I, was supposed to allow players to handle any kind of compressed music file, even the music business-hated MP3. At some point down the line, Phase II would kick in with users being prompted to upgrade their machines (presumably through a downloadable free firmware patch) to support SDMI-compliant music tracks. Phase II devices would continue to play old music files, again MP3 files would be included, but would reject pirated versions of SDMI-compliant files. So far, so good, but some SMDI members apparently wanted the Phase II screening to be built into Phase I systems, replacing Phase I's planned 1-bit switch -- is the track pre or post-Phase II? Yes or no? -- in the file header with a 3-bit watermark system that allows music publishers to specify rules for what the user can do with the content. Typically, the rule is 'no copies allowed'. In other words, does the SDMI spec. allow compatibility with old, pre-SDMI music files or not? The SDMI originally won the concession from the music industry that everyone should put the past behind them and concentrate on preventing piracy in future -- ie. live with people ripping tracks from existing CDs, but make sure they can't copy upcoming copy-controlled media, such as DVD-Audio. However, the push for a 3-bit system appears to have been an attempt by the music business to get copy protection -- ie. to eliminate MP3s -- back on the agenda. And it seems to have succeeded. The SDMI's Phase I screen will now be 3-bit system, presumably with one bit used as the Phase II detector, and the other two for copy control information. The issue for the SDMI now is to ensure that hardware suppliers who have been building systems based on a 1-bit Phase I watermark can now rejig there devices to support the 3-bit watermark. It also needs to ensure that they can actually get that technology from Aris Technologies, the company supplying the 3-bit system, which, of course, was originally assumed not to be needed until the Phase II timeframe. Aris' system is also the basis for DVD-Audio content protection. The SDMI is now saying the 3-bit technology "will be made available under a licence for shipping after 1 October" -- with an "it is anticipated" caveat. The SDMI isn't going to ratify the licensing procedure and costs to licensees before 19 October, the date of its next meeting. That's cutting things very fine for the SDMI's oft-stated schedule of getting everything ready for manufacturers to ship SDMI-compliant devices in time for Christmas 1999. Arguably, the whole two-step process was a fudge to ensure that some degree of SDMI compatibility could be offered by the end of the year, but it's now looking like that very time-saving approach, and the confusion it has caused, will cause the deadline to be broken. ® Related Stories For The Register's full SDMI coverage, click here

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