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Scary strategies revealed at secret Washington meeting

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Update Our source may not be all he or she claimed to be, and serious doubts have been cast on the veracity of the comments attributed to the RIAA's Rosen and co. For a full update click here.

The music industry and its hired muscle, the Recording Industry Ass. of America, plans to step up its war against MP3 file sharing and CD ripping with campaigns targeting legal, technological and Internet access fronts, The Register has learned.

Last week, the RIAA hosted a secret meeting in Washington DC with the heads of major record labels and technology companies, plus leaders of other trade bodies and even members of the US senate.

Present, we are told by sources close to the RIAA, were Intel's Andy Grove; IBM's Lou Gerstner; Disney's Michael Eisner; Jack Valenti, head of the Motion Picture Ass. of America; International Federation of the Phonographic Industry chief Jay Berman; Vivendi Universal's Edgar Bronfman; AOL Time-Warner's Gerald Levin; EMI's Ken Berry; and from Bertelsmann, Strauss Zelnick.

Also present were the CEOs of Matsushita and Toshiba, and senators Fritz Hollings and Ted Stevens.

The meeting's keynote was made by RIAA head Hillary Rosen. The drop in CD sales can be directly attributed to "the new generation of file sapping services", she said, and promised that her organisation would pursue the companies behind them vigorously.

What does that entail? According to Rosen, there are a number of tactics the RIAA will employ. First, she says, "we are working with sound card manufacturers to implement technology that will block the recording of watermarked content in both digital and analogue form". That will nobble attempts to rip and distribute encoded material, but what about existing files and CDs? Step forward PC manufacturers, whose help the RIAA hopes to recruit to "find ways to block the spread of legacy content".

Register readers will recall the RIAA's attempts to prevent content distribution directly at the hard drive level through its Copyright Protection for Removable Media (CPRM) initiative, brought to light by The Register late last year. Such was the level of (entirely justifiable) anger at the prospect of the music industry saying what users can and can't store on their own hard drives, that the plan was dropped, seemingly for good.

But not so. "The failure of the CPRM specification to be applied to computer hard drives was a giant step back for the publishing, music and entertainment industry," said Rosen, and promised to "develop a new specification that accomplishes what CPRM would have done."

In the meantime, the RIAA will be lobbying "our friends in Washington" for tougher laws that target "the hackers and file-sharers themselves", so clearly if you thought the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) was harsh enough already, think again. Indeed, the RIAA wants legislators to block any loophole in that law which can allow file-sharers to continue to distribute copyright material.

For example, Rosen wants the protection granted by the DMCA to ISPs from the infringing actions of their subscribers to be removed. If the RIAA gets its way, ISPs will be as guilty of copyright violation as their subscribers. "Because of the magnitude of the problem, ISPs can no longer be shielded from the wrath of the law," shrieked Rosen righteously.

Of course, Internet companies will have an even harder job of policing copyright infringement than the music industry has, undoubtedly leading to mass blocking of file-sharing software, preventing those applications' legitimate usage as much as their illegal usage.

Worryingly, legislation designed to protect computer users' privacy are likely to be tackled too. Disney chief Michael Eisner pointed out after Rosen's keynote that "privacy laws are our biggest impediment to us obtaining our objectives".

So too is the ongoing ease with which music recorded on today's CDs can be ripped onto listeners' hard drives. Rosen pointed out that trials of anti-rip technologies, such as Midbar's Cactus and Macrovision's SafeAudio have been "extremely successful", though we're not as confident as she is of the claim that "no one has been able to circumvent them".

The big labels are certainly keen on them. Vivendi Universal will be using anti-rip technology on all the discs it ships from Q2 next year. AOL Time-Warner will do the same in Q3 2002, following private and public trials with SafeAudio and Cactus between now and then.

All this points to a move by the major music labels - and undoubtedly the movie companies too - to do anything they can to halt the transfer and even the storage of copyright material without their explicit say-so, primarily by limiting content at source and using the law to block whatever material gets through the net. And if anyone's rights get in the way, well that's just too bad. ®

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