MP3 wars: New technology could signal end of conflict
publiziert: Sonntag, 11. Mrz 2001 / 11:11 Uhr

Hamburg - Madonna was at first deeply saddened, then delighted at its advertising effect. English cult band Radiohead swears by it. Some groups such as Metallica denounce it in public, while some European artists such as Katja Riemann and Marius- Westernhagen don't find anything funny about it at all and have written protest letters to the European Parliament.

The centre of this attention: The mass illegal copying of music over the Internet, which has of late preoccupied authors, composers, and the entire music industry. The culprit is a audio file compression process with the catchy name "Motion Picture Experts Group audio layer 3," or MP3 for short. The method compresses music data into a fraction of its original size by removing "unnecessary" parts of the data - those tones imperceptible to the human ear, for example.

The smaller data packets that result can be transmitted over the Internet at up to 12 times faster, without a loss of quality. Experts regard MP3 as the "the greatest revolution since the invention of the phonograph record." Its creators, three scientists from Erlangen, Germany's Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuitry (IIS), were honored this past year with the "Deutschen Zukunftspreis 2000" (German Award for the Future 2000).

Yet since 1993, this modest audio file compression technique has proved combustible for the relationship between Internet portal providers, consumers, and the music industry.

The five largest music labels - BMG, EMI, Time-Warner, Sony, and Universtal - sued the popular music exchange Web site Napster for violations of their license contracts, seeking compensation totaling billions of dollars. With a nose for Napster's stable of 60 million users and its potential for reaching even more, the German media giant Bertelsmann thought it had sniffed out a big opportunity: It teamed up with Napster by providing a 60 million dollars in credit and instructing Bertelsmann subsidiary BMG to drop out of the lawsuit.

Nevertheless, on February 12 Napster was forced to swallow a bitter pill and has occupied itself since then with a feverish effort to put together a business model that could bring peace between the record industry and themselves.

Experts estimate the recording industry incurs more than three billion-dollars-worth of damages worldwide every year due to music piracy. Still, an end to the uncontrollable copying appears to be in sight - not just because Napster was required to start putting together a business model to honor copyrights, but because the technology sector is again preparing to come forward with a potential solution.

The ISS researchers, of all people, plan to use the upcoming CeBIT computer fair, the world's largest, to present new software that offers effective copy protection. The product should put portal Web sites into the position of integrating a so-called digital watermark, essentially a small data spy, into every MP3 file.

"Even if someone actually manages to separate the digital watermark from the data, he'll have to deal with a noticeable depreciation in sound quality," says Christian Neubauer of ISS. Every service provider will be able to outfit music data with the inaudible watermarks. The path that the data takes across the Web could then be tracked using an integrated customer number or unique ID. This would enable potential repercussions against unauthorized copiers.

"What the providers do with the data is not our business," says Neubauer. The researchers, he says, are merely making the technology available.


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