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The Recording Industry Association of America is developing a system to identify and track the transmission of digital music files, the trade organisation said yesterday.

Essentially, the RIAA's plan is to embed identifiction codes into digital music files. The codes would contain details about the song, who owns the copyright and describe what anyone who obtains the file can do with it - play it back once or unlimited duplication and playback, for example.

The system should be ready for use by the middle of 2001, and is designed to be compatible with existing digital rights management systems, such as software from Reciprocal and Intertrust.

The RIAA described the coding as information that will be stored in the header of digital music files, but we suspect it's more akin to a watermark, embedded within the digitised sound, to make it harder for pirates and hackers to remove it.

Of course, the coding can't stop piracy - there remain too many ways to create digital music files without the codes - but it does provide a mechanism by which legitimate digital music distribution services can track music usage for the calculation of royalty payments.

In that respect, the scheme seems primarily designed to legitimise services like Napster, which can be modified to only handle correctly coded music files and to determine which how many copies of given file are made, and thus what percentage of the subscription fee the owner of that file's copyright should receive.

Again, that won't prevent the rise of deliberately non-compliant software, but it will make it easier for such services to avoid confrontation with the music industry's big guns.

Indeed, the timing of the RIAA announcement can't be coincidence, what with the US Court of Appeal's verdict on Napster still being eagerly awaited by the industry. The RIAA's scheme provides a way out for Napster, a method by which it can avoid closure if the case goes against it. ®

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