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Official secure music scheme to kill all non-compliant formats

13 May 1999

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It was five years ago today... Orwellian futures, dark enclaves and "Millennium Triggers" - it was all go back in 1999 as the music biz sought a way to stop punters raping and pillaging its product. Read on:

Official secure music scheme to kill all non-compliant formats

By Tony Smith
Published Thursday 13th May 1999 11:52 GMT

The music industry has planted a timebomb in Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) to nuke all non-compliant files at a time of the business' choosing, according to a source close to the SDMI.

The source, cited by MP3.com (and therefore not what you'd call a friend of either the SDMI or the music majors behind it), claimed to have attended recent SDMI sessions held in London. What emerged, said the source, was a two-stage strategy covering the transition from today's open music world into the highly secure future the music industry wants to see. The first stage will see the definition of SDMI compliance - not a digital audio format in its own right but a framework for what formats must provide. Clearly, current MP3 files, for example, will not come up to scratch, and neither will songs ripped from CDs, MP3.com's source reckons.

Stage one is pretty much what was anticipated. Player software and hardware devices such as Diamond Multimedia's Rio will play both SDMI compliant and non-compliant files. However, stage two will kill the latter. Described by the source as a "Millennium Trigger", it's essentially a software switch that can be activated at a later date - the source suggests by some kind of dark conclave of music industry execs - and will prevent non-SDMI files being played by or generated from SDMI devices. The plan appears to be to allow the music industry to add protection mechanisms to standard media, including CDs, and when that's done to flip the switch and activate full copy-protection on a worldwide basis, instantly. From that point on, SDMI-compliant CDs could be pressed with their 'do not copy' bits set.

Of course, since all those CDs you've been buying for the past 15 years were not designed with SDMI compliance in mind, they'll instantly become redundant. Having persuaded music buyers to replace their LPs and cassettes with CDs, the music industry forces them to repeat the process, at least if they ever upgrade their hardware. How they will square this will their own 'CDs provide a lifetime of listening enjoyment' claims (our italics), will remain to be seen. They will probably argue that 'lifetime' refers to the disc, not the listener.

In the US, at least, listeners may be protected by the Home Recording Act and the principles of Fair Use, which allow you to make copies for personal use only of recordings you've bought. Music fans in the UK and the rest of Europe have no such protections, and territory-level encoding, such as that employed in the DVD format, would ensure that less secure files for the US could not be used elsewhere.

Of course, all this sounds remarkably X Files, and MP3.com's source certainly paints as some great music industry conspiracy. That said, the music business has been pursuing its full copy protection Holy Grail since the early 80s, and only the reluctance of the consumer electronics companies to follow suit has prevented that goal being achieved. But with the consumer electronics people now on board, thanks to the prospect of the new, online market, it's clear the future will be one that's highly copy-protected. And since we're just talking digital data here, the principles of the SDMI could equally and as easily be applied to software. Is it time, perhaps, to stop buying music and software, until the situation gets sorted out? That's the last thing any of these industries want, so it's no wonder they're being so secretive over SDMI. ®


Five years on and the SDMI is... well... dead. It came to nothing - and neither did the mysterious Millennium Trigger. But CD copy protection continues to rear its ugly head, and legal download sites are, of course, DRMed to the hilt. Whether the music business becomes an entirely online affair or physical media continue to dominate, it's clear that content protection will increasingly be a feature of the music industry for many years to come.

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