Group Picks Secure Music Format, But In Time Holiday Sales?

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The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) has finally agreed to watermark-technology licensing terms for Phase I-compliant portable audio devices that store music in nonvolatile solid-state memory. It took longer to reach this decision than was expected however, and the first Phase 1-compliant devices probably won't be available until early next year, missing SDMI's goal of holiday-season sales.

Holiday stockings could be filled with any one of a number of non-compliant devices already on the market, from such companies such as Creative Labs, I-Jam, Diamond Multimedia, Sensory Science and Thomson. Some of these models, however, can be made compliant with upgrade software.

Some of the first SDMI-complaint products will include the VAIO Music Clip introduced at COMDEX by Sony's computer group. It will be available in January at an estimated $299 through Sony's PC resellers and the company's Web site. Sony previously disclosed plans to market a compliant Memory Stick Walkman in the United States in January for a suggested $399 and also this December in Japan.

Also at COMDEX, I-Jam introduced three new portables expected to be SDMI compliant when they ship in the second quarter.

Among other things, the Phase I SDMI specification sets a four-copy limit on music tracks ripped and encoded by PC from existing and future "unprotected" CDs that lack watermarks. To make additional copies, a consumer will have to repeat the ripping and encoding process.

In addition, Phase 1 music-management software will trigger a pop-up screen when it detects a watermark in future "protected" music. The screen will inform users that they must upgrade to Phase II software to play back the protected music, whose watermark will incorporate usage rules. Devices using Phase I or Phase II technology will continue to play back existing and future unprotected music files and new SDMI-protected music files, the group said.

SDMI has begun drafting a call for Phase II technology proposals that could incorporate additional copy-protection technology besides watermarked usage rules. Approval is expected sometime after the first quarter.

Phase II won't define a particular rights-management technology but will define what different rights-management technologies must do to earn the SDMI badge. Existing rights-management technologies include InterTrust's MetaTrust and the right-management component of Microsoft's Windows Media Audio, which includes a compressed-music format. Future versions could become Phase II-compliant.

The Phase I licensing decision was slowed by disagreements over whether it should include only a triggering bit that activates the pop-up screen or an additional two bits that spell out authorized usage rules, said Eric Metois of watermark-technology developer Aris Solana. The usage-rule bits delivered by Aris' watermark were developed by the 4C group, which is responsible for developing DVD-Audio copyright-protection standards.

What the SDMI selected was a joint licensing proposal from Aris Solana and the 4C group, he noted. There was "controversy over the process leading to a substantial consensus," he said, noting that "a few people wished they had more time." But, he said, unanimity isn't needed to achieve that consensus.

For DVD-Audio, the 4C companies also selected the Aris Solana watermark and the three bits adopted by SDMI, he said.

To speed up delivery of SDMI-compliant devices, Aris made a software developer's kit available "quite a few weeks ago" with a preliminary license agreement, Metois said.


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