SDMI: Aris Wins, World Loses



Categories: Uncategorized

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