The recording and consumer electronics industries published guidelines for technology yesterday to limit copying of music distributed on the World Wide Web. The move is intended to clear the way for big record companies to get into the fast-growing business of moving music to consumers over the global computer network.
Under the plan, millions of people would download music from Web sites and save it on their computers or on other electronic playback devices. But special security coding would allow them to make only four copies.
Many Internet analysts question whether the public will accept music sold under these limits. When a consumer buys a CD or a tape, there are essentially no technological controls on copying the music.
"The only way this can work is to inconvenience those who are purchasing and using [the music] correctly and not the people who are using it illegitimately," said Alex Fowler of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a group that has criticized the control features.
The guidelines, known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative, describe the basic technical features of a system that the music industry hopes will become universal. The idea is that the music and hardware industries will incorporate the technology into their products.
An SDMI music file, upon being downloaded to a listening device, would look for SDMI security software on the device. The file would not play if the software was not there. With the software, the music could be played as many times as desired but could be copied only four times.
The trading of music over the Internet has mushroomed in the past year. Much of what flows are songs from small record labels, which believe the Internet will give them global exposure, and pirated songs from big recording companies.
"The last year has clearly shown that consumers want music online," said Leonardo Chiariglione, executive director of SDMI.
Big companies, five of whom control more than 80 percent of the market, have hung back from the Web distribution. They contend that without copying controls, the Internet, where music can easily be copied and redistributed, is eroding their market share and income stream.
Proponents of Internet music say it's ushering in a new era of distribution that will benefit the musician and the consumer by cutting out the middleman -- the record companies -- who have had a century-long hold on the distribution of physical products such as vinyl records and CDs.
But the recording industry counters that such an argument is often a facade for rationalizing piracy. Using physical products to distribute recorded music means that the artist is more likely to be paid, Chiariglione said. "With music being given away for free on the Internet, the model where the artist received renumeration was on the verge of collapse," he said.
But SDMI officials say more work will be done on the standard. "What technology we will use hasn't been arrived at," said Jack Lacy, an AT&T Corp. senior researcher and chairman of the SDMI committee on portable listening devices. He said SDMI is evaluating 11 proposals. "We don't specify exactly how you are suppose to implement the requirements. We say, `If you are going to move content around, here are the rules.' "