Wednesday, April 01, 2009

INTERNET AUDIO - The Ultimate Solution

The lengthy debate over music distribution on the Internet may be nearing its end.  

A small startup company called TheFix, based in Wowee, Oregon, has come up with the ultimate proposal for resolving this contentious issue. Apple Mott, CEO of the firm (and no relation to the computer manufacturer or canned fruit company of the same names), says the whole problem comes from the misguided attempt to distribute music in a purely digital form. This is what allows pirates to reproduce perfect copies of stolen material, while also causing innocent consumers to inadvertently exceed their rights under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. 

The company's slogan, “Put the Analog back in Audio,” hints at their simple but radical solution: open the Internet to good old-fashioned “analog” signals.

Their proposal hinges on the adoption of a device called the New Analog Router Chip, or NARC, that would be installed in all new Internet routers to allow a special set of analog audio channels to be carried over the same digital packet switching network as normal Internet traffic. In the home, a set-top box or expansion card in the computer would act as a receiver for the special analog signals. The whole system, known as the Remote Audio Device Interface Online, or RADIO, will revolutionize the way we listen to music, according to Mott.

Since analog files are only approximations of the digital originals, they can be listened to, but will produce imperfect copies if recorded. “With digital files,” says Mott, “you can never stop piracy, because if you can decode it to listen to it then you can steal it. But analog gives us a whole range of tools we can use to discourage illegitimate copying.”

“By limiting the number of available channels, we can control who is authorized to broadcast,” says Mott, who goes on to point out that the FCC might regulate such broadcasters much the way television stations are regulated. “This way, a direct chain is created between the content creator, the distributor, the broadcaster, and the end user. The broadcaster has the ability to receive files in digital form, but then processes them into analog for broadcasting while adding a variety of copy-discouraging features.”

How would these features work? For one thing, the broadcaster remains in control of not only what you listen to, but when you listen to it. This eliminates the chaos of file-sharing services that let users grab anything they want from a list, whenever they want it.

“Not only does this discourage copying,” says Mott, “but it means distributors can have a say in what they want to distribute.” For example, by charging broadcasters less for songs on a preferred list, a distributor could encourage the playing of such material, while providing a hidden revenue stream for the broadcasters. This Play-At-Your-Option Licensing Agreement, or PAYOLA, is currently under legal review by the RIAA for inclusion in potential RADIO broadcaster contracts.

Users, of course, will have to pay for the material they listen to in order to support the infrastructure. Rates are not yet set, but one proposal is to bring back the nostalgic “nickel juke box” of 1950's fame by charging as little as 5 cents per song, which might add up to only $1.00 per hour of listening for an average set of songs. The industry remains flexible, however, and will probably offer deep discounts for “favorites” that you would like to hear over and over again. For example, a mere $20 might buy you lifetime rights to a particular song that you could listen to as many times as you want.

Mott sees no reason why advertising couldn't provide additional revenue for broadcasters – in the form of analog audio streams, of course. Such material could be inserted unobtrusively in the pauses between songs. Eventually such advertising might even be considered a benefit to listeners as it could be used to provide valuable public information or news of sales events of which the listeners otherwise would be unaware.

Other copy protection features are more subtle. For example, broadcasters could insert audio labels giving the name of the artist and title of the album, and this information could slightly overlap the beginning and end of the songs. This would serve to readily identify a pirated copy while providing information about the source of the copy. And it would be impossible for pirates to strip out without clipping off part of the song.

The analog signal can also be made more difficult to copy by the introduction of High-frequency Injected Sibilance Signals, or HISS, into the broadcast channel. This technology works by adding a nearly undetectable layer of so-called “white noise” over the normal audio. Beyond the range of normal hearing – particularly the hearing of the fans of most contemporary popular music – these signals become more noticeable when copies are made.

What about the impact of all this on sales of music CD's? Simple - just stop selling them. “Sales are falling anyway,” Mott says. “Once our new system is in place, and the content creators and distributors see that they have a safe alternative way to get the music out there, then there will no incentive to keep those old discs in circulation.” Eventually, he believes, manufacturers would no longer make CD players any more than they make players for 8-track tapes, and this would effectively eliminate the copying of older digital material which is already in circulation.

Of course, there will always be some listeners who prefer to buy their music in a physical form instead of getting it online. For them, TheFix plans to provide a new storage medium based on their patented analog technology and a mechanical reproduction technique. This product, known as the Retail Enhanced Consumer Oriented Read Device, or RECORD, would be too expensive for pirates to manufacture. It is also said to promote sales by having a limited life span.

[This was written a few years ago but it is still timely, and I find myself thinking about it again each year ... right around April first.]

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