No Agreement in Sight for Watermarking Issue

As digital distribution grows, the protection of copyrighted material---music, film, video, photographic images, paintings, drawings, and text---becomes ever more important. Tied to this are widespread concerns about maintaining security during online transactions---keeping credit-card numbers and customers' identities hidden from would-be thieves.

Several organizations are working to establish standards for electronic security. An umbrella organization, the Copy Protection Technical Working Group, consisting of technical representatives from film studios, the recording industry, and the computer and consumer electronics industries, has been intermittently working on the problem. A primary goal is to find a method to embed "watermarks," or digital ID numbers, and generational copy-inhibit code in audio and video products, that will effectively discourage piracy while remaining "transparent" to consumers.

CPTWG's Data Hiding SubGroup has winnowed out of seven competing proposals three "merged" approaches. Some observers have seen this as a sign that an agreement on a standard was just around the corner. However, DHSG co-chairman Paul Wehrenberg, manager of mass-storage and optical standards for Apple Computer, described his group's task as "technical discovery." "We were chartered by the CPTWG to investigate whether the concept of digital watermarking makes sense . . . and to find out what solutions are out there."

Other organizations, such as the Digital Audio-Video Council for Internet Commerce (DAVIC), have been pursuing their own solutions. So has the London-based International Federation of Phonograph Industries, which is working on audio watermarking with its Muse project. Paul Jacob, IFPI director of technology, said his group is "generating very interesting results." Jacob opined that continuing research shows that audio watermarking will be "a vital component for future protection systems for sound recordings." Partners in the project include the Recording Industry Association of America, BMG, Sony, PolyGram, EMI, Universal, and Warner. The Giovanni technology from Miami's Blue Spike Inc. is one of four "inaudible" possibilities under consideration, according to Scott Moskowitz, Blue Spike's CEO.

Some companies have made an end run around the issue of universal agreement and adopted whatever system seemed most expedient. Nordic Entertainment, for example, last April adopted ARIS Technologies' MusiCode watermarking system for its Downloadable Music Site (see previous story).

A universal standard for all digital products and commerce would be in everyone's best interest, explained CPTWG member Alan Bell, of IBM's DVD Project Office. "DVD is just half the story," Bell said. "A safety net for scrambling is essential to send digital content electronically . . . not only for DVD players, but for PCs and the Internet." The search for a standard is not "about declaring a solution" but about building cross-platform support among divergent industries. Information Technology Industry Council vice president Fiona Branton admitted that watermarking and encryption efforts are "not that organized," adding that she didn't believe the computer industry had yet "made the connection." Barton stated that whatever watermarking technologies are chosen by Hollywood will likely become the "de facto standards." Market clout rather than technical expertise may determine the outcome of the quest for copyright protection.

The IBM proposal under consideration by the IFPI is separate from the one IBM presented to the CPTWG. Alan Bell acknowledged what audiophiles have long maintained---that human hearing is capable of resolving extraordinarily fine detail. "Audio," he said, "has less noise where we can hide watermarks . . . it's easier to fool the human eye in video watermarking."