First Watermarking and Now Fingerprinting?

Having previous experience working for the CIA or the KGB may be a bonus on the resume of any aspiring audio industry applicant, it seems. In an effort to stymie the illegal copying and distribution of digital song files, record companies and hardware manufacturers have turned to increasingly complicated tracking technologies such as MPEG-4 and watermarking. The most recent addition to the anti-pirate bag of tricks: "fingerprinting."

Blame it all on Napster. In an effort that it hopes will keep the music business vultures at bay, the company announced last week that it has signed a licensing deal for a new commercial release of an advanced acoustic fingerprinting technology called TRM or "This Recognizes Music." TRM, created by Virginia's Relatable, purports to uniquely identify audio recordings by analyzing the acoustic properties of a recording's waveform, regardless of audio format, bit rate, or minor signal distortion.

Napster's Interim CEO Hank Barry says that "digital fingerprinting technologies are developing rapidly, and Relatable's new acoustic fingerprinting technology shows great promise. We are now working closely with Relatable's engineers to coordinate their technology with our file-filtering systems; we hope they will be a substantial part of our overall filtering solution."

Relatable's Pat Breslin adds that "TRM will help ensure that the millions of music files transferred through the new Napster system will be accurately monitored, and it will enable the appropriate allocation of royalties to artists, music publishers, and record companies." But Breslin cautions that "how long it will take remains to be seen. This is the first time a fingerprinting solution has been implemented on such a [large] scale and we have to refine and optimize it to the Napster network. There are many technological challenges."

Relatable explains that TRM extracts a large number of acoustic features from an audio file to create a unique audio fingerprint that identifies the specific musical track precisely. Once the fingerprint is created, it is sent to the TRM server, which matches the fingerprint to an existing song in a customer's music database. Citing recent internal tests, the company claims that the latest commercial version of the TRM lookup server can handle more than 5000 fingerprint matches per second, or up to billions of queries per day.

Relatable adds that it has used its audio recognition technology to fingerprint about one million tracks so far. But will fingerprinting stand the joint tests of time and hackers? According to Webnoize's Gregor Rohda, "the effort needed to defeat Napster's current text-based file security versus a fingerprint system is like shoplifting a candy bar versus heisting a bank. Relatable's technology moves Napster a big step closer to having a viable commercial service. However, implementing this system will require significant effort."