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The RIAA's radio lawsuit - and your iPod

The next big battleground

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Analysis Ever since the invention of electricity, new technologies have been devised to create novel mechanisms for the storage and transmission of music. Finally, with digital, we're seeing the distinction between transmission and storage melt away altogether, with radio that you can record.

This isn't exactly new, as anyone who grew up with a radio cassette player, and peeling "Home Taping Is Killing Music" stickers off vinyl album sleeves knows. But the digital version of these battles has finally broken out this week, with the latest RIAA lawsuit targeting a US satellite radio company.

As we wrote several months ago, a loophole exists that means the rights holder receives no recording royalty on a stream that has instantly been transformed into a recording. Nor did they receive anything from the cassette mix tapes you made. But the tentative introduction of radios that record streams as discrete digital files this year in the United States has brought the rights holders out swinging.

A few months ago we reported how Universal's digital boss Larry Kenswil - when he wasn't getting Slashdot mixed up with Digg - singled out Samsung and Pioneer for particular attention. Samsung's Helix player and Pioneer's Inno player - the latter was launched in January and marketed by XM Radio as the XM2go under the slogan "It's not a Pod. It's the mothership" - are the catalyst for the $26bn lawsuit.

The Inno looks like a large iPod with an antenna, stores 50 hours of music, doubles as an FM radio, and allows you to create playlists. At $399, it's well priced, and points the way to what an iPod should be.

The RIAA is suing for the maximum penalty for infringement: $150,000 per song, which adds up: XM has 6.5 million listeners and broadcasts 160,000 songs a month. The lawsuit charges XM with copyright infringement, unauthorized digital delivery, reproduction infringement and unfair competition.

Not every XM radio subscriber has an Inno, however, and the RIAA's claim that XM listeners "will have little need ever again to buy legitimate copies of plaintiffs' sound recordings" is fanciful, given the sound quality of the broadcasts.

XM denounced the lawsuit as a bargaining tactic, which of course it is, and vowed to fight it. XM's only satellite radio rival Sirius settled with the rights holder earlier this spring. XM will surely follow. In addition to being backed by GM and Honda, founder investor ClearChannel rubs along just fine with the RIAA.

Over in Europe, terrestrial digital radio or DAB is now mainstream, although manufacturers have been tentative about building technology that allows it to fulfill its true potential.

Most digital radios allow you to rewind, but few allow you to record, or to juggle the recordings around. The Wayne Hemingway-designed Bug receiver allowed you to do both, and also move the recording to an SD card. A hard disk version of the Bug has yet to appear, and popular models only permit a buffer large enough to permit only a few minutes of the broadcast to be rewound. And as with US satellite radio, the sound quality is considerably less than promised.

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