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Music industry aims to send in radio cops

Page 2 of 2 -- Sounds nutty, yes? After all, there's no way the record industry can enforce its opinion. You can copy Internet audio in total secrecy. It's not like the file-swapping systems, where each user leaves a digital fingerprint on the Internet, so the record companies can identify and sue them. Behind closed doors, you can record whatever you like, with nobody the wiser, unless the music companies assign a cop to watch every computer in every home.

That may be just what the record industry has in mind, to judge by its discussions with the Federal Communications Commission over a new kind of radio broadcasting.

It's called "high-definition radio," digital broadcasting that relies on some currently unused chunks of the FM frequency band. A handful of stations offer these broadcasts, and a few radios are capable of receiving them. Music producers are terrified that listeners will be able to make high-quality music recordings simply by copying the digital broadcasts. So they're demanding that the FCC order the high-definition radio broadcasters to add a "broadcast flag," an antipiracy system similar to the kind mandated for high-definition television broadcasts. In addition, all high-definition radio receivers would have to recognize the broadcast flag and limit the listener's ability to make copies.

So your high-definition radio would contain a built-in piracy cop that would prevent your copying the songs broadcast over the air. You might be allowed to record all of the music a station plays between noon and 4 p.m. But if you tried to make copies of each individual song, the broadcast flag technology would prevent it. It doesn't matter that the copies are for your personal use only, said Marks. If you want a permanent copy of the song, you pay. No exceptions.

The FCC is even now deciding whether to approve the limits on high-definition radio broadcasting. If the music companies get their way, Internet radio will be their next target. As more of us get broadband connections, Internet broadcasters will jack up their stream quality, delivering sound as good as any CD recording. Consumers will eagerly copy these streams, engaging in a practice most of us have long considered as legal as breathing.

To prevent this, the music industry begins by asserting that there has never been a right to copy Internet audio. Next comes the effort to require built-in audio anti-copying chips in all computers. Similar efforts in Congress were met with outrage and derision, but the record moguls hope for a friendly reception from the unelected commissioners of the FCC.

In essence, the music companies want to control the design of all future home computers. It's been their fondest hope for years, but I never understood the scope of their ambitions until I got Marks's phone call. He intended it as a correction. I consider it a warning of yet another threat to our right to listen as we like.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com. 

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