Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2006/12/07/drm_drm_and_drm/

Dreadful Recorded Music?

What will DRM stand for in the future?

By Guy Kewney

Posted in Media, 7th December 2006 10:16 GMT

Opinion Imagine this: a new world standard in music recording. It works like this. You turn the radio on and it downloads four hours of songs in MP3 format. Free.

Yeah, you can probably imagine that. Now: imagine this - nobody in the music recording industry complains, or protests, or sues.

It already happened. It happened when DAB first appeared, and nobody noticed, because it was too expensive a solution. And it's happened again now that DAB has been followed by DRM. No, not Digital Rights Management - almost the exact opposite: Digital Radio Mondiale.

Here's how it happened. Ask yourself: when DAB first started, how big was an SD Flash memory chip? And what did it cost?

The question is about to become really important. DAB, or Digital Audio Broadcast, is amazingly popular - in the UK. Now, the rest of the world is about to get digital radio too: but a new standard. And, almost without anybody noticing or complaining, the new standard - Digital Radio Mondiale or DRM - is about to get people arguing about music downloads again.

It has always been (technically) possible for a DAB radio owner to record the digital stream direct to memory. The broadcast is already digital so there isn't any difficulty about digitising it; the only hassle is whether it's an MP3 format recording. I have played with one of the first DRM radios, and it is.

The radio is set up so if you plug a £10 SD flash memory card into the side of it, you can record four hours of DRM, or half an hour of DAB.  There's an electronic programme guide, so you can set your timer to record shows that are coming up. And when it's done you'll be able to plug it into your PC and save the MP3 files with all your other MP3 files.

So, why did the world's music copyright owners not kick up a stink at the time?

I think it's because they didn't think it mattered. Without a deja vu machine, it's hard to prove this wrong, but you're going back close to the days when they ignored the iPod, because "it only works on a Mac, so who cares?" and at the time when DAB first appeared the UK was the only place anyone took it seriously.

Morphy Richards has now released the first DRM radio in Germany, and its view is that the difference between the UK and the rest of the world was simple: "The BBC made DAB work, because the BBC started DAB broadcasts. So there was a market for DAB radios, which meant other broadcasters started DAB stations too."

No such impetus elsewhere, and so you can take your DAB radio overseas, but you'll find almost nobody transmitting. And so, the music business ignored it. DRM is now here and is much more likely to become a global standard because it allows digital broadcasts on existing medium wave and short wave and FM channels, as well as DAB frequencies.

But it's digital and, therefore, it can breach copy protection, or digital rights management.

There's the fact that you can transcribe broadcasts (pretty much) direct to the internet, but that was not seen as worth making a fuss about. The cost of Flash memory probably made the music industry take the view that it was a threat no greater than the existence of recording tape. Yes, technically, it is possible to record copyright music off FM radio and then feed it into your sound card and then rip it to MP3...but nobody does. So (I guess) the recording people reckoned it would be equally tedious work to steal free music from digital radio.

As to whether people will, only time can tell.

At the moment, there simply aren't enough DRM radio sets to make any difference. And it will probably be two years before the numbers reach the point where DRM-recorded songs reach critical mass - if they ever do.

Then there's the question of sound quality. FM radio (say audio experts) is much better audio than DAB and DAB is better than DRM. Again, that is probably better than guesswork, but it isn't clear that it matters because what we're comparing this with is not Hi-Fi, but MP3. The world is full of people who think that the sound quality of an iPod is Hi-Fi, but truly it isn't.

The sound quality of DRM can't be judged by the bandwidth. The compression is quite fierce, as you can judge by the fact that the same program which fills a one-gig SD card in half an hour of DAB, will fill only a quarter of the same card if you record off DRM. But it's not that simple. The new compression techniques in DRM are going to fool all but the "golden ears" types. I reckon if you're happy with an iPod, you won't mind getting a DRM download.

So there are two questions I'd want to see answered:

  1. Will it be easy to index these downloads? If it's hard work to tag the recording in such a way that people will know what they're downloading from the Torrent, then few people will tag it: if it's relatively easy, then obviously more people will do it.
  2. Will the music industry see the threat in time to re-negotiate the standards, so that broadcasts are laced with the poison of digital rights management, after all?

When we know the answers to these questions, we may have some idea of what will happen to music copyright in the 2010s. My own bet is that the music industry won't respond to the threat, and that the practise of downloading and indexing won't become wildly popular for years. I'm inclined to think that by the time it becomes a significant part of the music business, the music industry may have been focused so much on other "threats" to the sanctity of copyright that this issue will be established, de facto, as one of the ways of distributing MP3s.

In any case, copyright is a dream. Those of us who make our living by creating original stuff will be accustomed to "exploit it early, because it will go stale" mentality, and the current fantasy that says "we can prevent copying, we have the technology" will have been exposed as the fairy tale it really is. ®