SDMI or Not?

by Don Marti

So, it's up to the independent musicians now. They can choose to work with the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), which purports to restrict copying music to guarantee payment from listeners, or they can choose to release SDMI-free music -- and trust the fans to be good and support them somehow.

Hackers and Linux users are naturally suspicious of schemes like SDMI because we don't trust technology promoted by copyright holders to allow reasonable fair use of copyrighted material. In a recent lawsuit in New York, movie studios successfully used a US law called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) to suppress DVD-decryption software developed as part of a project to view DVD movies on Linux systems. Jon Johansen, who worked on the DVD-decoding software, is wary of SDMI too. In response to my letter to SDMI executive director Leonardo Chiariglione, in which I said that I would not participate in SDMI's hacking challenge and asked others to do the same, Johansen wrote:

Yes, I couldn't agree more. Like the movie industry, the music industry is trying to obtain total control over how we use our legally purchased content. However, they fail to realize why their friends in the movie industry failed to do so using CSS. It wasn't because someone needed to "show off their skills", "make some money" or "help shape the future of the online digital movie community" which is what the website tempts its visitors with. CSS failed because it was designed to allow the movie industry to tell its customers how, where and when they are allowed to use their content. The Free Software community would not, and never will, stand by and see their rights being taken away. It is thus impossible for us to contribute to enhance the same technologies that are designed to take our rights away.

Thank you, Jon, and thank you, Linux Journal readers, for all the mail you sent expressing support for the letter. I checked out some of your web sites, and I'm impressed with your obvious programming and reverse engineering skills. Send me an article proposal some time. But, to be fair, the story of SDMI is a little more complicated than the now classic drama of evil corporate "Intellectual Property" lawyers attempting to shut down people's free speech, fair use or reverse engineering. I talked with Mr. Chiariglione on the phone, and his vision for the fruits of SDMI is surprisingly similar to the vision of success for independent musicians that file-sharing proponents are offering.

Not that I think people should enter his contest or anything, but Mr. Chiariglione turns out to have a subversive streak a mile wide. SDMI, he says, will sustain a disintermediated market for music, in which musicians can "earn revenue from simply placing the music on a web site, cutting out all the intermediaries, call them record companies, call them whatever you want." Record companies, he says, will have to "count on the hundreds of thousands of songs to which they still have the rights, and this incredible ability of theirs to create a hit."

Even though SDMI threatens to restrict fair use of music released by bands or companies that choose it, SDMI technology is not a record industry tool for re-cartelizing music just as CDs and MP3s are making a good start on de-cartelizing it. SDMI devices will be required to accept and play non-SDMI music recorded in your home studio. "SDMI is not going to tell people 'thou shalt use watermarking.' There's no obligation for people to use it," Mr. Chiariglione says. "The garage band music that has no watermark will be interpreted as legacy content and will be played without restriction by an SDMI-compliant device."

Music customers are going to hold you to that, by the way.

So, will independent musicians decide to use SDMI? At my home office, I now have the distinct pleasure of listening to Rahman Khan <> improvising on the electric guitar. He's playing his Fender Stratocaster through my Linux box while I write this.

Rahman and I have been messing around with some of the Linux audio tools reviewed in Linux Music and Sound. Fun stuff. There's far more information in this book than I could review in even a year of annoying the neighbors with my sound card and bass. Common Lisp Music? Broadcast 2000? It's tweakable open-source everything, wow. Cheap but decent PC audio, capacious hard disks and software for using them are the most disruptive music technology since Leo Fender picked up a soldering iron. Inexpensive home studios, the "desktop publishing of music", mean that a professional-quality album is a possibility for almost anyone who is willing to put in the practice time. Sure, a lot of what we're hearing now is the audio equivalent of a 1980s Mac user's font frenzy, but give it time.

Rahman is in the process of starting a small record company with a policy of aggressively releasing music on the Internet to win fans. He doesn't want anyone copying his music, or his bands' music, for profit, but he wants to get the music out there by releasing some songs from each album into file-sharing services such as Napster. "We weren't out to break any records," he says about his goals in starting the company. No shareholder expectations to meet, no big money, just a decent living for the bands. And, he adds, "Any musician who says that they would rather have fewer people listen to their music so they can make more money needs to be in marketing, not in music."

To ensure that bands will make a living from record or CD sales (and he does believe that fans want a tangible recording, not just a download), Rahman says he'd like to "keep it on the honor system" and use all those file-sharing music fans as a cheap way to distribute sample music, but not certain tracks. "We'll publish a list of songs that we want out there, and we ask that our fans put them on the Internet," he says. Rahman also plans a common-sense copying policy in place of predefined technological restrictions. "When you walk up to a museum and it says 'Donation $2,' most people don't skip right past it," he says. Instead of using SDMI to treat all fans as guilty until proven innocent, he'll just take action against the few people who try to break the system by illegally posting everything. Much simpler than SDMI and he can start today. "I know there's a lot of politics involved in music, but come on," he says.

On the other hand, there are probably musicians reading up on SDMI right now and planning to start using it to make a living without accepting a record contract. This struggle won't be settled in the streets or in the courts, but in the home studios. Yes, someone will hack SDMI and post code publicly, and yes, someone else will defend the hack in court. But if you want to join a legal battle against the DMCA, well, you know where to find the DVD cases. News flash: it's been done. The unplowed acres of prime noosphere bottomland are the challenges of creating a fair system for supporting more good music. Mr. Chiariglione has shown musicians his plan, so we should offer them better options. (The Street Performer Protocol is attractive, for example.) The real heroes of the fight against SDMI will be the hackers who set an example for how to build the record industry's successor on mutual respect, by making and distributing SDMI-free music.

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