Electronic watermarks used to police downloads

Conventional anti-copyright infringement technology has been discarded by a German online music provider

A German company is offering MP3 files for download, unencumbered by DRM (digital rights management). Instead, Akuma discourages copying by adding a unique “watermark” to each download.

Akuma, an online music store, sells MP3 files that can be played on almost any digital music player, but adds a unique tag to each download using watermark technology from Germany’s Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits, which helped create the MP3 audio compression algorithm.

The watermark technology makes slight changes to the data in sound files, such as a higher volume intensity in a tiny part of a song, that are undetectable by even the best trained ears, according to Fraunhofer researchers. However, if unauthorised copies of a download turn up on, for example, peer-to-peer file sharing networks, the watermark allows Akuma to identify the purchaser of a file and take action against them.

“Around 40% of the labels we offer are embedded with watermarks,” says Sascha Hottes, a managing director of H2 Media Factory, which launched Akuma. “This is the compromise we’ve reached with labels that are willing to release their titles in the MP3 format and not in Microsoft’s Windows Media Audio format with its DRM technology.”

As part of its service, Akuma monitors songs embedded with a watermark against illegal distribution on P-to-P services, according to Hottes. “We monitor P-to-P networks on a random basis,” he says.

Akuma hopes to break into a crowded market by making song-downloading a piece of cake. The German portal requires no special download software and places no restrictions on the choice of music player.

Customers can make as many copies of the songs as they like, burn them to CDs and transfer them onto multiple portable music players.

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