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Cutting Edge

File Formats & The Internet
By Dave Shapton

There are many reasons why the digital delivery of media hasn't replaced traditional physical methods, but could one reason be that files just aren't very collectable?

While it's not exactly the most profound statement you'll read today, records aren't records any more. It's a transformation that started when CDs became the dominant medium for consumer audio in the '80s, although regardless of whether a record is a record or CD, the prosaic conclusion to this is that records used to be 'things'. You could pick them up, put them on a shelf, play Frisbee with them and, most important of all, collect them. I've got a pile of 12-inch singles somewhere in the loft, for example, and although they've all been transfered onto tape, Minidisc or MP3 these days, it's nice just knowing they're still around.

Mp3.com once tried to provide a service where you could stream your CD collection anywhere, so long as you had the original CD as the licence. Had they got permission from the copyright owners before doing this, of course, they might not have been sued...Mp3.com once tried to provide a service where you could stream your CD collection anywhere, so long as you had the original CD as the licence. Had they got permission from the copyright owners before doing this, of course, they might not have been sued...But if records aren't records any more, what are they? Files — wave files, MP3 files, Windows Media files, and any of the other types of files that exist for storing audio. And, call me picky if you like, you can't collect files — all you can do is assemble them.

These days, you can probably fit your entire CD collection on a single hard disk, which, in some ways, is very convenient: no more struggling to read the tiny print on the side of a CD jewel case or record sleeve, no more putting the CD in the wrong case, and so on. But for all their convenience, files aren't collectable because they're nothing but a series of numbers that, when decoded, represent a musical recording. But while audio files, like all recordings, are abstractions of the original audio phenomenon, to me, as a collector, they're an abstraction too far.

Who Owns A File?

I don't think there's much we can do to change this position since the Internet and cheap high-capacity storage media have seen to that. But there are at least two ways in which we can regenerate the sense of ownership over musical files, and, at the same time, reduce the amount of illegal copying.

Files are so easy to store and transfer to other media that they don't lend themselves easily to a sense of ownership, which is partly the reason why people don't feel as bad about 'stealing' them as they might about taking a CD from someone's house. What's different about copying a media file is that you don't harm the owner, because you leave the original in place — note that when I say 'owner', in this case I'm talking about the 'keeper' of a media file, not the copyright owner.

With this in mind, no one is going to pay a great deal of money for downloading a music file they feel isn't secure. Imagine that, like me, you have several Gigabytes of music files on your PC ripped from CDs you already own: if my hard drive slows down and stops forever, the worst that can happen is that I have to digitise all my CDs again. But what happens if you lose all your files and you don't happen to have the original copies of them? This is likely to be the situation with practically all downloaded files, whether obtained legally or not.

However, it's not just equipment failures that could wipe out years of investment in downloads. Companies fail as well as equipment. I've seen digital rights management schemes that 'wrap' a media file in a shell that allows it to be copied easily, but will stop it being played unless a payment has been made and verified. Trouble is that all these methods are proprietary and often the brainchild of a startup company that has yet to demonstrate that it is profitable or even viable. No-one in their right mind is going to pay for tracks that could be rendered useless by the demise of the company that encrypted them.

Wisdom

Given that files are very easy to obtain from the Internet, from friends, and so on, perhaps a better approach to the problem would be to allow free copying, but to still require a licence to store or use the files. A licence can either be a physical thing or a centrally stored key, and I've mentioned before in this column that a great solution to licensing would be to declare that CDs themselves are licences. It's all a question of definition, really, because it's no different physically from what we have at the moment. But what I am proposing goes a little further because in my scheme, owning a CD would allow you to make any number of copies of the track in whatever form you like for your own personal use. You could also make copies and give them to your friends, but they'd be obliged to buy a licence themselves — the CD. If you wanted to, you could swap files, but you'd have to swap the CD as well.

This solution might appeal to some people, especially those who take pride in their existing CD collections. I like it because it's an elegant solution that gives something to both consumers and sellers of music, but it could be seen as a step that doesn't go far enough towards acknowledging the massive changes in the way we get hold of and use music in the 21st century. You could say that if music is downloadable, the licences should be as well.

Stephen King's eBook Riding The Bullet caused quite a stir when it was released, but King ended up biting the bullet, rather than riding it.Stephen King's eBook Riding The Bullet caused quite a stir when it was released, but King ended up biting the bullet, rather than riding it.

However, this isn't a new idea in any sense: most digital rights management (DRM) systems revolve around the idea of paying for permission to use a track. And most of them are really annoying because they tend to 'anchor' licensed tracks to your computer or portable playback device. Try copying DRM-protected files to another computer across a network and you'll get into all sorts of difficulties, for example, and you still have the worry of what happens if your hard disk goes down.

Electronic Books

I'm not quite sure why, but I find these ideas easier to grapple with if I think about electronic books instead of music. Perhaps it's because physical books are very much collectors items, and the fact they last for centuries doesn't make it easy to come up with a suitable electronic equivalent. So if you can get it right with electronic books, you can probably do the same for music.

Electronic books are a still great idea, though, not least because they don't weigh very much. For example, I can carry hundreds of them on my laptop, which weighs quite a bit, but since I have to carry it anyway, it doesn't get any heavier just because it's got War And Peace on it.

But, to me, as collectors' items electronic books have virtually no value: you can't hold them, or put them on a shelf, or even in a cardboard box in the loft — and they are vulnerable. All of which probably contributes to the fact that electronic books have been a commercial failure: if you don't copy-protect them, the publishers and authors get nothing; and if you do, they're tied to one computer — and if anything happens to that computer, so much for your electronic books.

So What's The Answer?

Maybe what we need is some kind of 'vault' to store all our electronic possessions, although we wouldn't need to store our actual media files and books there at all — just the licences permitting us to keep and use them. For example, let's say you've bought the latest Ethel Merman disco album: you pay by credit card and download the album from the record company's site. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depening on whether you're a fan of Ethel Merman or not), someone steals your computer, but this needn't be a problem: you just go to the site, enter your user name and password, and download the track again. You can do this because your licence is stored not by the record company, but by an independent organisation, or a network of them — these official bodies would act as a repository for all your licences or permissions, which would be available worldwide, via the Internet.

The benefits could be huge. Using streaming technology, your record collection would be available to you anywhere. You could be in a hotel in Rio, or in your bedroom: just put your username and password into the stereo, and you'd have instant access to your favourite music.

But who would look after all this? Well, it would be in the interests of the copyright owners to set up organisations to administer the licensing and to provide the on-line service. It doesn't really matter where the music is stored: it could be locally on your own system, or on the record company's server, or perhaps at the licensing organisation itself. Maybe the existing copyright agencies could evolve to take on this role, as they struggle to cope with the new networked paradigm.

Stream Me Up

Streamium website.If you'd just brought out a product that was ground-breaking, novel, and possibly representative of a new paradigm in home entertainment, you'd want to give it a good name, wouldn't you? But, such considerations don't appear to have been any sort of deterrent, however, to Phillips, who have really taken the 'Internet music bull' by the horns with their awkwardly named device, Streamium — the first genuine home stereo system that's designed from the ground up to be attached to a network.

Specifically, Streamium plugs into your home computer and broadband connection, and it's pretty important that it connects to both since you can listen to streamed music live from the Internet, in addition to playing tracks already downloaded or ripped to your computer's hard disk. I guess this neatly gets round all the usual copyright issues because the Streamium isn't actually aiding and abetting any acts of copyright abuse — it just plays back audio you've already got; and, although it will stream music from the Internet, I can't find anything in the literature to suggest that it will let you record it. The neatest touch, however, is surely that if you press the Info button, you'll be sent an email with details about the track you're listening to.

Published February 2003