"Like Having Big Brother in Your Stereo."

The Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) appears to be the antidote to many a record executive's worst audio poison: legions of young music fans downloading digital audio files off the Internet and passing them around with no regard to copyright restrictions. But what might be the answer to some companies' prayers could prove to be the Big Brother nightmare feared by others.

In response to the major-label support of SDMI, Musicians United, in association with Timpani and Free-Music.com, announced last week the launch of the Art-To-Heart Open Music Format Initiative to protect the Fair Use rights of consumers and artists to unencrypted music. The emerging Internet music market, which is based primarily on the open MP3 file format, has become a boon for independent music artists and fans. However, Musicians United and its affiliates believe that SDMI, an initiative driven by the five largest record companies, will have a chilling effect on the nascent independent music industry.

According to the group, high fees are likely to be required to create SDMI-compliant files, fees that many feel could prevent independent music artists from distributing their work in SDMI formats. If vendors cease supporting open formats, the reasoning goes, SDMI will effectively control the system of online music distribution, and thus marginalize independent artists in the Internet music economy. Additionally, they believe that SDMI also threatens to deprive consumers of the Fair Use rights granted them by Congress and the US Constitution.

The group points out that, in a landmark 1984 decision, the Supreme Court ruled "All reproductions . . . are not within the exclusive domain of the copyright owner; some are in the public domain. Any individual may reproduce a copyrighted work for 'fair use'; the copyright owner does not possess the exclusive right to that use." Art-To-Heart supporters believe that by encumbering the ability of consumers to exercise Fair Use rights, and pressuring hardware and software vendors to curtail their support for open standards such as MP3, SDMI may overrule the law and create a system under which even legitimate uses are monitored by SDMI watchdogs. "This would be like having Big Brother in your stereo."

In an effort to prevent this "violation of the public's rights," Art-To-Heart is posting an online petition, which urges vendors to continue to respect the public's right to Fair Use by pledging to always support open audio formats such as MP3 and its successors. A statement from the group says that "this in no way encumbers the ability of SDMI supporters to distribute copy-protected music, but it protects the rights of those who prefer to lawfully distribute music in open formats and the consumer's right to Fair Use."