Tech Talk

October 26, 1998

November 2, 1998

November 16, 1998


Tech Week

How does this sound? A portable stereo with no moving parts that you plug into your computer, load up with music and go on your merry way.

Sounds like Star Trek? Maybe, but there already is such a device like that on the market. If you haven't yet heard about it, don't feel left out. But don't expect the music industry to tell you much either, since it is pouring its vast resources into an effort to rein in a business that could quickly spin out of its control.

I'm referring to the current battle over the Rio PMP300, a Walkman-size device developed by Diamond Multimedia Systems Inc. that can take about an hour's worth of CD-quality tunes from the Internet and store them in its memory, for playback at one's convenience. The Rio works using a standard known as MP3, which allows large amounts of digital music to be compressed and stored in a relatively small amount of space. Currently known primarily to computer-savvy audiophiles (or college students, as we like to call them), MP3 already has garnered the scorn of the record companies who see their profits from royalties going down the toilet if more people get their hands on it.

First, a little background. The advent of compact disks makes it possible to transfer and store music electronically, since music on CDs is already in digital format. Problem was, the files were just too big. An average song takes up about 38 megabytes of memory space; an entire CD can take up around 650 MB or more. So unless you have a super-fast Internet connection and about a week of free time, getting music over the Web is not at all practical.

Enter MP3. Using the same technology that allows 300 cable channels to be squeezed into a single wire, MP3 compresses a song file down to about one-twelfth its original size. This allows music to be sent via the Internet to be downloaded onto a normal PC. Using the right software, the song can then be decompressed and played back off computer's hard drive or, in this case, recorded onto a Rio player.

The technology has become enormously popular with the college crowd, and dozens of MP3 sites popped up virtually over night allowing Internet surfers to download entire album collections for free. Add a recordable CD-ROM drive to your machine (about $250 from any computer store), and that music can be lifted onto blank CDs and given away, or sold, without losing any of the original quality of the music.

Needless to say, the music industry is concerned. The industry's lobby group, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), filed lawsuits against what it called "illegal MP3 sites," including one in San Diego last year. It is also lobbying for competing digital standards that will employ greater piracy and copyright protections. And, most recently, they took the Rio to court.

That's where they took a hit last week. Charging that the Rio violates a 1992 law that requires makers of digital recording devices to pay royalties to the industry, the RIAA sought an injunction on Diamond Multimedia to keep them from shipping the device. Los Angeles federal judge Audrey B. Collins refused to grant the injunction, ruling that the banning the device would not stop the explosion of pirated MP3 music on the Internet.

"Although the Rio will inevitably be used to record both legitimate music and illegitimate music, the absence of the SCMS information [anti-piracy technology] does not cause the illegitimate uses," Collins said in her ruling. "Even if the Rio did incorporate SCMS, a Rio user could still use the device to record unauthorized MP3 files posted to the Internet."

MP3 enthusiasts do not openly condone the illegal copying of copyrighted songs for distribution over the Web; they merely contend that MP3 is a legitimate technology for personal use, like a video cassette recorder. They also say that MP3 will allow more bands who can't get record company backing to have an alternative method of distribution for their material.

But the dispute does well to highlight yet another application for the Internet that is likely to change the way business is done. Even the RIAA concedes that it cannot stop the digital revolution from becoming a part of the music business. Already, the industry is getting behind alternative standards like a2b, developed by AT&T Labs, and Liquid Audio. Both formats compress like MP3, but also offer attractive security bonuses like encryption and digital watermarking that will keep illegal copies from being made and allow those that are made to be traced to the original purchaser.

Surely, it will be years before the music via the Internet becomes even close to a viable competitor to record stores. If a standard is hammered out, it may speed up that process considerably. However, as the music industry is already learning, the Internet does not conform easily to limits put upon it. After all, there will always be college kids with computers.


October 26, 1998

November 2, 1998

November 16, 1998