Digital Watermarking And The Performing Right – Part 2

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In the arena of digital watermarking-that is, the process of automating music performance tracking in broadcast, cable and on the Internet-the current level of activity in the industry can easily be described as buzzing. This is quite a contrast from a year ago, when the International Federation of Phonographic Industry (IFPI) quietly issued its Request For Proposals for an “Embedded Signalling System.” This endeavor, which came to be known as the “Muse Project” was issued with a rather specific technical protocol.

The objective of Muse was “to identify a method or methods of adding inaudible information to sound recordings (including sound incorporated in video and multi-media) so that the added information could be retrieved even after resampling, re-recording, and performing other transformations including digital/analogue conversion.”

Clearly, the development of such a technical protocol was Internet-driven. But the potential benefits of using this technology to track music performances in mainstream television and radio broadcasting was especially apparent to the leadership of SESAC. As a result, SESAC announced an industry-first agreement with ARIS Technologies in January of 1998, paving the way for the most sweeping changes in music performance reporting in decades (As background, Part I of this series is available at

ASCAP and BMI, not wanting to deprive their members of a competitive advantage, are also considering the challenges of a digital age. Alison Smith of BMI, addressing the May 26th California Copyright Convention stated, “We are looking at all possible entrees into digital watermarking.”

As it is, there’s no shortage of servers at the digital buffet. In addition to ARIS, companies like Blue Spike, Cognicity, Solana and Central Research Labs appear to be participating in the Muse trials as well as pitching the performing rights societies, most probably under nondisclosure agreements. It is also reported that RIAA (the Recording Industry Association of America) is submitting a system developed by BBN, a company recently acquired by telecommunications giant GTE.

“BMI absolutely supports the concept of watermarking,” stated Richard Conlon, VP of Marketing & Business Development at BMI. “Our position has been to work with all the players in the marketplace-to acquaint ourselves with the technologies that are out there-and to test those technologies.” Conlon stressed the importance of interoperability between tracking music via watermarking solutions as contrasted with Internet searching and recognition solutions, such as the BMIMusicBot™ and the ASCAP EZ-Seeker™. “These are decidedly different tasks,” said Conlon. “The solution is going to be a combination of technologies that will ultimately get us where we want to be. There is no silver bullet.”

So says Marc Morgenstern, Senior VP of New Media & Strategic Planning at ASCAP. “Watermarking is one technology that we will need to use to track performances in traditional media and new media,” said Morgenstern. “It’s not a be-all, end-all [solution] by itself. Watermarking has to be seen as part of a complementary group of technologies.”

If these executives seem to be on the same page, perhaps they are. ASCAP and BMI (as well as SESAC) are members of an informal committee made up of performing and mechanical rights societies throughout the world. “The goal of the committee,” said BMI’s Conlon, “is to send out representatives to the audio-enabling companies towards developing an internal synopsis of what’s going on in the marketplace.”

According to ASCAP’s Morgenstern, “Of what we’ve seen, ARIS appears to be the closest to deployment.” BMI’s Conlon stated, “I think ARIS has done a very good job of publicly getting out in front, but we’re also working with other companies. There are some good systems out there.”

Conlon was asked if these new watermarking technologies would be applied to mainstream broadcasts, to the Internet or to both. “The Web is going to be our testing ground,” he replied. “At BMI, our concept has been to receive our Internet performance information electronically-which we do-and to use that as the template so we can learn to manage copyright in the digital world. If we do this right, we can apply what we learn on the Web to monitoring mainstream television and radio-which is analog. As delivery of those media becomes digital, BMI will be ready for it.”

Morgenstern was asked if he anticipated the adoption of a standardized carrier format, much like the technical protocols agreed upon by the retailing and banking associations. “The odds of a single format being adopted across our industry are quite slim,” he replied. “It’s in everyone’s interest to have multiple standards that meet our technical requirements.”

Drawing a comparison to the operating systems for cable set-top boxes, Morgenstern cited Microsoft’s CE system and Sun Microsystems’ Java-based OS. “It’s a matter of fair competition and preventing an overleveraging situation resulting in too much control over the flow of data and dollars,” said Morgenstern. “We believe the music industry will favor a limited number of high-quality, multiple standards.”

Indeed, ASCAP has seen indications that musical works may be encoded with multiple carrier formats-so long as audio quality and readability are not impaired. “I can see multiple standards existing side-by-side,” stated Morgenstern. “Perhaps over time, a technological leader may emerge, resulting in a single format of watermarking.”

Basically, BMI concurs. “There are going to have to be a set of global standards,” said Conlon. “Hopefully, these standards will be flexible enough to encourage a lot of players to participate. Our job at BMI is to get performance money back to the writers and publishers, to spend the least amount of money doing it while insuring a valid and statistically proper-ultimately more of a census-based distribution.”

Morgenstern stated, “The model of how ASCAP gets data is obviously going to change and we are prepared to spend the appropriate dollars to get the best possible survey of performances in the business.” He added, “ASCAP wants our members to know we’re looking out for them. On the one hand, we’re not going to jump into new technologies without due diligence. On the other hand, we want to stay ahead of the curve.”

At press time, that curve is clearly being drawn by SESAC and ARIS. The companies have jointly announced that monitoring stations in the top 50+ U.S. broadcast markets will be rolled out beginning in December and continuing through March of 1999.

SESAC’s policy will prioritize the monitoring of mainstream TV/radio/cable (with some 68 million American households subscribing to cable TV alone) while stated policies from ASCAP and BMI will prioritize music searches on the Web, which only has about 20 million American homes currently equipped with PC’s and modems.

Whatever media is prioritized, it appears that the race for automated and comprehensive music performance data in broadcast, cable and Internet has officially begun.