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PC World

Sony technology protects music copyrights

February 26, 1999
Web posted at: 11:19 a.m. EST (1619 GMT)

by Rob Guth, IDG News Service

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(IDG) -- Sony on Thursday rolled out a broad set of copy-protection technologies that could help record companies stymied by the problem of how to securely distribute music over the Internet.

The Tokyo-based consumer electronics and entertainment giant announced three related technologies designed to enable PCs and handheld devices to download audio data without the risk of illegal copying.

The technologies also offer a way for online music sellers to manage the use and sale of music even after customers download the files, the company says. Sony plans to license the technologies, called MagicGate, OpenMG, and Super MagicGate, to record companies and vendors.

Sony representatives this week will present the technology to the Secure Digital Music Initiative, an industry group led by the Recording Industry Association of America. The association is investigating ways to sell music over the Internet.

The Sony technology suite arrives amid a growing controversy over how to marry the Internet with music distribution. Over the past year, a technology known as MP3, which compresses music so that it can be easily downloaded, has spurred the rapid growth of Web sites offering music to all takers. Much of the music available in the MP3 format has been pirated, rankling record companies and other music copyright holders.

Sony officials say they will not support MP3, which doesn't offer copy protection.

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Tracks Usage

In general, the Sony technologies are based on the concept of moving, not copying audio data. When a music file is transferred between devices, the copy protection automatically erases the version of the song on the original host.

MagicGate is designed for mobile devices that use an integrated circuit to record music. The technology requires an embedded chip in both the player and the recording media. The chip verifies that the device and media are approved before transferring data between them. The data is encrypted for protection against unauthorized copying, playback, or transmission, a Sony spokesperson says.

OpenMG will first be offered as a software and serial-port connector for PCs. It encrypts music stored on a hard disk.

At the heart of the Sony system is Super MagicGate, server software that handles Internet-based music distribution. It includes content protection, secure payment functions, and copyright management, a Sony representative says.

Super MagicGate weaves into the audio data coded information about payment and usage, so use and billing settings can change even after music is sent to a customer. For example, customers who paid for limited use of a song could upgrade to unlimited use. A seller can use the technology to designate a music file for sale for unlimited use, or limit its use by time or number of plays, the Sony representative says.

Bid for Business

The copy-protection technologies are a key step in what may be a major push by Sony into digital music distribution. The company is laying the technical foundations for secure distribution of online music to portable devices.

Last week Sony announced plans to release larger-capacity versions of a flash memory it calls Memory Stick. The company now sells 4MB and 8MB versions of the Memory Stick card; it will launch a 16MB version in April, followed by a 32MB version early in 2000.

Memory Stick and related Sony products will likely compete with players such as Rio, a popular MP3 player sold by San Jose, California-based Diamond Multimedia Systems.

"This [Sony] is the company of Walkman fame. The last thing they want is some monitor maker stealing business away from them," says Mark Hardie, an analyst at Forrester Research.

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