MP3 versus free speech

For many centuries now, the world of science and the world of business have evolved a happy coexistence. Businessmen know that the golden eggs are laid by scientists, and societies which have done well in fostering scientific research have prospered.

A key part of the recipe for doing science is openness. Scientists produce new ideas, and expose them to the scrutiny and criticisms of peers. Each researcher stands on the shoulders of investigators who came up with important innovations before him. Most laymen grossly under-estimate the extent to which the scientific process involves intense communication and collaboration; the image of a lone genius like Ramanujan is much more important in mythology than in reality. Free speech is an essential part of science. Indeed, closed societies have generally done badly at producing good science.

The one area where the scientific community accepted restrictions upon openness was weapons research. Hence, the scientific community has accepted a two-tier world where most research is public domain, except for that which delivers weapons into odious hands.

My story starts at MP3: the ubiquitous file format through which computers play music at extremely high quality. The record industry considers MP3 to be a disaster since it is easy to make MP3 files from CDs, and MP3 files are easily transferred to others.

Every music CD that exists in today's world can be converted into MP3 files and be endlessly copied without paying fees to the record companies. This could mean the end of record companies as we know them. Many musicians would welcome such an outcome, since the music industry only pays roughly 10% of its revenues to the creators of the music.

The record companies' attempt at survival is centred around the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), a mechanism through which music CDs would have "watermarks" which would prevent copying. The record companies hope to create a world where all new CD players would respect these watermarks, and the distribution of all new music would be based on SDMI. Hence, the stock of existing music would roam free in the world, but atleast a future friendly to the record companies could be conjured.

In September 2000, SDMI announced a challenge where music samples based on four alternative watermarking schemes were made available on the Internet, and a prize was offered to anyone who could break them. A team of researchers led by Edward Felten of Carnegie-Mellon University, who are experts on computer security and watermarking schemes, broke all four schemes. Under normal circumstances, we would have thought that they did a great favour to SDMI by exposing the weaknesses of the schemes.

A research paper Reading Between the Lines: Lessons from the SDMI Challenge which explained these schemes and how they were broken was due to be presented on 26 April 2001 at a conference. In a remarkable move, the record companies threatened to bring a lawsuit if the authors proceeded with their presentation or the publication of the paper. Threats were made against the authors, against the conference organizers, and against their respective employers.

Normally, the elementary provisions for free speech in a democracy would ensure that presentation or publication are simply unchallengeable. The record companies found legal support in a remarkably odious piece of legislation in the United States called the "Digital Millennium Copyright Act" (DMCA).

I think of this as a milestone in the history of free speech. This is the first time that a researcher has been muzzled in an area which has nothing to do with weapons research.

In a related development, the software firm Microsoft has announced that its upcoming Windows XP operating system will have an inherent bias against MP3 files. It is not clear what steps will be undertaken, but users may be prohibited from creating MP3 files at high resolutions, or noise may be artificially mixed into MP3 files at playback time. Microsoft's intent is to wean users away from MP3 to proprietary formats that are created by Microsoft, which will cooperate with SDMI. One scenario could involve Microsoft becoming a middleman picking up fees from users playing music and passing on a cut to the record companies.

Thus we have the MP3 file format in the crosshairs of the music industry, backed by the DMCA, and Microsoft, backed by its monopoly.

The principle that is at stake is human freedom. I have always believed that the only way to block music piracy is the erection of a police state, and we are now seeing the first steps towards this. Blocking the presentation of a paper is the kind of conduct we would have normally expected with the Shiv Sena or the Taliban. The links between attacks on MP3 and a police state are frightening, including efforts in China and Taiwan to use strong-arm tactics against citizens owning MP3 files.

Going beyond principles to effectiveness, I believe that we are in a lucky situation, where these efforts will be perfectly ineffectual:

However, I think this eposide highlights certain vulnerabilities, which should be addressed. Specifically, we should be very careful in understanding the sources of authoritarian power in the DMCA, and ensuring that such ideas are not present in India's IT Act. The IT act has got too little scrutiny to date. Its authors clearly obtained inspiration from an odious dictatorship (Singapore). Hence, I would be concerned about the extent to which human freedoms are being violated by the provisions of the IT act.

I believe that MP3 is here to stay, and that the music industry will have to change. Concerts, merchandise, advertising and product endorsements will be more important sources of revenue. The music industry will focus on these. Musicians will directly sell music over the Internet, while disintermediating the record companies. Musicians will get a greater fraction of the total revenues of the music industry. I expect that it will be a good world for the people genuinely producing music and the people genuinely consuming music. The middlemen, like the record companies or Microsoft, will get eliminated, which will be a change for the better.

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