Prodigal Song

In a modern twist on Dr. Frankenstein, the lead inventor of MP3 is called upon to craft an alternative.

By James Ryan

Alarmed by the masses downloading unlicensed MP3 music files free from the Web, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has finally placed its thumbs in the leaking dike. Its challenge? To create a single, secure standard for digital music other than MP3. Overseeing the multinational, cross-industry effort - known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) - is Italian communications visionary Leonardo Chiariglione.

Chiariglione was not the obvious choice. He had, after all, helped open the digital-download floodgates by midwifing the birth of MP3 in the early 1990s. Those familiar with his past work, however, know Chiariglione is the obvious - if not the only - man to run SDMI.

A resident of Turin, Italy, he spearheads the Open Platform Initiative for Multimedia Access (OPIMA), an ambitious effort to produce a technology "whereby any consumer device can access any protected content from anywhere." What's more, he possesses an almost religious devotion to creating universal standards for digital audio and video distribution.

His first ambitious goal is to create a secure standard for portable digital devices by June 30. After that, his working group - representing 111 widely divergent companies - will tackle such seemingly intractable issues as multiple platform operability and how to get beyond their own vested self-interests.

You have devoted your life to lowering international and technological barriers to communication.

Absolutely. That's the bottom line. To define standards that become the enablers of communication and not the obstacles to communication.

In a recent report, RIAA speculated that the Internet, and MP3, among other factors, contributed to a decrease in CD-buying by the 15-24 age group. Do you think that's fair?

I can't prove or disprove that the decrease is attributable to the Internet or anything else. But if you are in business and at the end of the year you see your bottom line is less than a year ago, isn't it natural that you ask yourself why?

Many people view SDMI as an effort to protect the interests of the Big Five (BMG, Intermedia Communications [formerly EMI], Sony, UMG, and WEA) record companies over independent musicians.

I believe that is incorrect and certainly very incomplete. Let me say this firmly: Of course the record companies have an interest in safeguarding the value of the content that has been entrusted to them by the others. That is obvious. But by no means should SDMI be taken as the Trojan horse of the content companies to deprive users of the benefit of this technology and the Internet. I can tell you very firmly that the so-called garage band is one of the key parameters in the SDMI specification.

When you headed the effort that led to the creation of MP3, did you not foresee that security would be a problem? Why was this not included in the original design?

MP3 was released [in] 1992. When you have a group of engineers and designers, they must do their work on the basis of design parameters that are dictated by the business environment of those times. There was no way for people to make copies, so there was no need to design a content-protection mechanism.

What is your biggest challenge?

There's a series of challenges. The first was to bring together all the disparate industries and create conditions for them to talk the same language and address problems in a technical way. This has been achieved. People now speak the same language. The next challenge is to define a reference model of this [portable] device. I believe very much we are on the right track and people believe we can do it.

The oil tanker has run aground and is leaking dangerously so you had to act quickly.

Yes. But it's not because we want to kill MP3. MP3 is still our son, our brainchild.

Do you personally ever download music from the Internet?

No. But if I did, would I say yes?

You've always promoted the idea that standards should ensure the widest possible audience. Doesn't SDMI's goal of creating a single secure standard narrow the audience?

By no means. SDMI is the next step in providing the technology that will enable more messages, more communication to happen because there will be more people motivated to create good art and put it up for sale.

Will it be possible to create a secure standard that plays on multiple platforms - PCs, car stereos, portable devices, home stereos? Or are we going to have to buy multiple versions of a piece of music?

You are asking one of the critical questions. On the one hand, technology companies would like to have the freedom to use whatever technology they want. On the other, you have consumers. The only thing they are invested in is: "I buy the music, I want to listen to it." The design parameter we have agreed on is a standard open to innovation that provides a high degree of interoperability. If you ask me, how are you going to achieve that...?

So you don't know for sure if it is possible?

Sure, it is possible. We will have it.

James Ryan

1998 Imagine Media Inc.