Watermarked CDs?

Record labels have found that CDs with built-in restriction technologies have not worked in all CD players, have been incompatible with some computers, and have engendered considerable backlash from irate consumers. But why should that stop them?

Stealth MediaLabs announced last week that SunnComm has agreed to license its "StealthChannel" technology, designed to utilize a "hidden and virtually indestructible 'metaspace'" within compact discs. The companies say this will allow for a persistent watermark to be embedded in SunnComm's MediaMax music CD releases.

In an effort to add a little sugar to the bitter watermark pill, the companies say that as a by-product of their approach, StealthChannel can also enable delivery of new, "MTV-like" multimedia and e-commerce features, permanently embedded into music and movies. They add that the StealthChannel is designed to survive digital and analog copying when content ends up on the Web or is dropped into portable media.

Stealth MediaLabs' Howard Leventhal explains that by adding StealthChannel multimedia metadata embedding technology to MediaMax, "a significant new hidden channel of binary data can be encoded into the audio tracks of music and movies." Leventhal claims that this auxiliary channel is inaudible and will persist through transcoding and re-recording between the analog and digital domains. "The hidden signal maintains an extraordinary resistance to filtering. This capability also makes it possible to insert an unlimited array of supplementary digital files into most kinds of distributed audio."

In addition to the digital spyware added to your CD, Leventhal says that embedded text, Java applets, Active X components, XML commands, pictures, scrolling music lyrics, e-commerce merchandise offers, and hidden free samples of music "all can be permanently distributed in music utilizing the StealthChannel."

How is it done? Leventhal says, "Applying a breakthrough algorithm, these embedded objects are encoded at the extremely high rate of 20 kilobits per second, while impacting the file size of most kinds of high quality digital audio minimally or not at all." The encoding is said to rely on human hearing characteristics that, it is hoped, will mask the effect of the process. The companies point out that because the watermark is encoded in the audio data, it is hard to remove without altering the sound of the music.

According to Stealth MediaLabs, researchers Alexander Iliev and Michael Scordilis originally discovered the StealthChannel at the University of Miami. Stealth MediaLabs then licensed the technology in 2001 and has been involved in a joint development project with UM and its researchers for last two years. SunnComm says it is expecting to debut MediaMax with StealthChannel later this year, when it will be offered to music labels and studios.

SunnComm's Peter H. Jacobs wants record labels to be able to track where pirated tracks come from, especially when promo or advance copies of new discs are distributed. "Tagging and user identification data will now survive from computer copies to taped copies and back again, further helping to control other forms of previously unprotectable and unauthorized redistribution." The company's Bill Whitmore reveals, "The intention was for protecting the security of intellectual property. Adding pictures and liner notes inside the song is kind of a by-product."

Music lovers need not panic just yet, however. At the recent National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) convention, the Recording Industry Association of America's (RIAA) Hilary Rosen referenced the watermarked discs, saying, "While there are no specific plans to release such products into the marketplace at this time, if they are produced, record companies will need to work closely with retailers to assure that the proper consumer education and labeling takes place."