While users by the millions pledge allegiance to MP3, record companies grumble and talk to their lawyers. When audio files shrink to an easily portable 4MB to 5MB, nothing prevents people from ripping multiple copies of their personal music library and posting the tunes on the Web or saving them to CD-Rs for distribution -- both of which constitute audio piracy. But the frontier-style free-for-all may not last much longer. The Secure Digital Music Initiative, launched in late 1998 by the Recording Industry Association of America and five major recording labels (BMG, EMI, Sony, Universal and Warner), aims to ensure that label companies get due compensation whenever anyone listens to digital music.
SDMI's specifications will be implemented in two phases. In phase one, which is already in effect, portable playback devices search for a digital watermark -- a digital tag on a song or CD mandating how that piece of music can be used -- that will notify users when the devices need to be upgraded to comply with phase two of SDMI. If phase two is implemented next year as planned, illegally encoded MP3 files won't run on the new generation of portable devices. For the full SDMI specification, see www.sdmi.org.