With all of the Big Four record labels now jettisoning digital rights management, music fans have every reason to rejoice. But consumer advocates are singing a note of caution, as the music industry experiments with digital-watermarking technology as a DRM substitute.
Watermarking offers copyright protection by letting a company track music that finds its way to illegal peer-to-peer networks. At its most precise, a watermark could encode a unique serial number that a music company could match to the original purchaser. So far, though, labels say they won't do that: Warner and EMI have not embraced watermarking at all, while Sony's and Universal's DRM-free lineups contain "anonymous" watermarks that won't trace to an individual.
Still, privacy advocates were quick to point out that the watermarking is likely to produce fresh, empirical data that copyright material is ping-ponging across peer-to-peer sites -- data the industry would use in its ongoing bid to tighten copyright controls, and to browbeat internet service providers to implement large-scale copyright-filtering operations.
"It gives them the ability to put pressure on policy makers and ISPs to do filtering," said Fred Von Lohmann, an Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney.