SDMI: Aris Wins, World Loses

written august 13, 1999

Didn’t the SDMI folks say that SDMI was a general wrapping specification
into which many technologies could fit? But they selected a singular
watermarking technology to handle security: Aris. Now it seems to me that of
all of the players involved (labels, artists, music VARs, portable device
manufacturers, and consumers) the only real winners from SDMI’s
pseudo-protection are the RIAA and Aris.

Once SDMI-only players are in place, the only way for an artist to get their
music on such a device is to use software licensed from Aris to put the
“SDMI Kosher” watermark on their music. Additionally, to distribute/sell
music from their website, artsts would need to purchase a complex per-user
watermarking server, with Aris-licensed technology. Of course, most artists
would never have enough savvy to do this: as such, they’ll be forced to sign
their music to a technology provider that had invested the money and time to
put such a system in place. Small, independant musician sites would likely
disappear under this paradigm.

Device manufacturers seeking to become SDMI-compliant will have to license
watermark-decoding technology from Aris and likely pay them a per-device

While agreed that it is at this time just wishful thinking, if a watermark
technology is needed for major content to move to the Net, an OpenSource
watermark technology would be the best choice. It would
encourage rapid and widespread adoption of a watermarked protection
mechanism and would ensure that even the smallest players would have a shot
at being able to set up music websites. The SDMI committee may believe that
restricting access to the technology will allow valid music publishers to
distribute their music while barring “pirates” from “stealing” their music.
Instead, it is giving Aris a monopoly and works strongly against small
publishers. As a folk artist in northern Oklahoma, how do you convince the
RIAA’s SDMI Watermark Office that you really are making music: that you have
a guitar, are recording original content, and deserve access to the
technology? What will allow the RIAA (or anybody) to decide whose music is
pirated and whose is valid? Does anybody have answers to these questions?

As a separate thought/consideration, the SDMI committee has made it clear
that computers will not be under the SDMI restrictions, only “portable music
devices.” And yet this distinction gets more blurry day by day! I argued
that the Rio was a computer, complete with storage, processing, a display,
input/output, and inter-computer communication capabilities — I created the
first patch to allow software to upload music from the Rio back to the
computer to prove this. But while the Rio positioned itself as a “computer
peripheral,” the new devices are incorporating more and more functionality
and are becoming PDA/Walkman hybrids. Is the Cassiopeia a computer? Surely!
And the Nomad? What if it added calendar support? How can the SDMI hope to
have any teeth at all if it doesn’t regulate any devices?

To add to all of this confusion, SDMI takes rights away from consumers.
SDMI prevents me from storing my music in multiple places, or from keeping
it in a central location that I can frequently access. If SDMI eventually
incorporates some of these “special cases,” it will likely be quite
complex: it has to be! Computer technology fundamentally allows for
sharing (see my article on this) and the technology to share tends to be easier
to write, and thus one step ahead, of technology to prevent sharing. As
hard as it is, it would be far wiser for labels to sell their music
in the clear like eMusic is doing.

This fake protection is not the savior. It will have its heyday, as
did software encryption some decade ago, but it will fade as people
realize the power of openness.

UPDATE: As it would have it, the above analysis is not perfectly correct. I’ve been notified by the co-chair of the SDMI committee and the CTO of Aris that clear (non-watermarked)
audio will indeed be free to be played on any SDMI-compliant device. The only music that gets blocked is music that is watermarked and labelled “Don’t Reproduce.”

See Also: Why SDMI Will Fail

Author: dweekly

I like to start things. :)