SDMI Executive Director Challenges Editorial

By Rich Menta- 11/04/99

You knew it was going to be interesting when Dr. Leonardo Chiariglione, executive director of the Secure Digital Music Initiative, began his retort with a quote from a corrupt former Italian Prime Minister.

His reply was in respose to an Oct 15th editorial written by's technology correspondent Eric Scheirer titled "The End of SDMI ".

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Scheirer's article was a perceptive piece targeting several weaknesses and missteps by the SDMI which may render the 9 month old organization impotent.

Formed last February by the major recording labels, the SDMI's claims its goal is to develop a security standard for digital music that will protect the artist.

But many in the industry, including Scheirer, feel that it was less about supplying security options to the artist and more about the music industry attempting to take control of the pace and end result of digital music technology.

It's no secret that the major labels were oblivious to the MP3 format until the Diamond Rio's became a huge sales hit last Christmas. When the major's realized what happened, they panicked and before long the lawsuits were filing.

Because of the high cost of defending a court action, even frivilous ones, litigation fears helped drive up SDMI membership as small Net companies capitulated to protect their limited capital. Now standing at 150 companies, Chiariglione declares the music industry's endeavor a success.

But creating a working security standard is not an easy process. In fact, it may be a technological white elephant. It only took a few weeks for hackers to defeat the security protocols in Microsoft's recently released Windows Media Audio (WMA) format. Indeed, the SDMI's goal to make all MP3 portable players compliant by this Christmas has failed. As Scheirer points out, some portables may say "SDMI compliant" on the box, but it means nothing as there is no security on them.

And that may be the key to what undo's the SDMI attempts - passive agressive actions by the MP3 manufacturers. To postpone litigation, these manufacturers go along with the group, knowing any security standards will take time to first build and then ratify among the membership. In the meantime, they freely pump out pre-security enabled units.

Also, the users who BUY MP3 equipment have no wish to be encumbered with security technology. As Scheirer again points out, a label saying "non-SDMI compliant" may actually sell more units on the market.

There are other issues, of course, and Scheirer goes into details on all that he perceives are the shortcomings of the organization. It's certainly worth a read to anyone who is curious if today' players will work with tomorrows music. It's a shame Chiariglione's rebuttal wasn't as detailed. In fact, there was very little to it except for a significant concession on interoperability.

Despite Scheirer's strong arguments, and Chiariglione's weak rebuttle, don't count out the SDMI yet. Organizations with deep pockets can become very formidable if they get their act together. Decades ago, RCA successfully defeated the inventor of FM radio, Robert Armstrong, by successfully petitioning the government to change the frequencies allotted for FM transmission. The ten's-of-thousands of radio's Armstrong's had sold immediately became obsolete and it ruined him. RCA, meanwhile, caught up with the technology and took control of the FM market.

Could history repeat itself?

The End of SDMI - by Eric Scheirer
Rebuttal - Dr. Leonardo Chiariglione

Copyright 1999 MP3 Newswire. All rights reserved.

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