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MP3: Can't Touch This

By David Sims - The Standard

If technology enables piracy, can technology guard against it? (The answer is no, but play along.) Two stories in the weekend press looked at efforts to build into the software or hardware of PCs ways to prevent users from ripping and passing along copyrighted music.

Cheeky U.K. tech site the Register offered tidbits on a Microsoft research project called Secure PC, "which is designed to win hearts, minds and wallets in the recording industry by blocking unlicensed copying of digital music." The plan would keep copyrighted music encrypted within a computer until it's played, making it tough to burn to a CD or download to an MP3 player. In fact, music served out in a secure digital music format would be better protected than music sold on a CD, possibly making Microsoft's distribution channel more valuable. The Register's John Lettice is typically indignant about Redmond's attempts to curry favor with music companies while the recording industry "carries on suing the crap out of everybody else."

But's John Borland doesn't have much faith in such software-based approaches, having watched hackers easily crack encryption schemes like the one that supposedly protected DVDs from being copied. Borland reports on a hardware-based approach, spearheaded by Intel, IBM, Matsushita Electric and Toshiba, to block copying. Such a solution would be hardwired into the PCs themselves.

Can they do that? About the only political resistance Borland could dig up was from an Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesman who said the change would give manufacturers control over how users back up their music libraries - not exactly a rallying call. More likely, resistance would come from the music industry itself, Borland suggested, not because it opposes protection but because it's been unable to agree on a single system. After all, it was their squabbling over the Secure Digital Music Initiative that delayed digital distribution and let Napster thrive for a time. Free music fans would do well to debate the merits of opposing schemes.

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