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MS patents DRM-free watermarked music

updated 04:50 pm EDT, Wed September 12, 2007

Microsoft No-DRM Watermark

Microsoft could soon implement a new watermarking system for music that would discourage piracy without restricting the usefulness of the music, according to a newly granted patent. Titled "Stealthy Audio Watermarking," the patent originally filed in May 2004 would use audio analysis to automatically place a digital signature inside the sound itself. Encoding software on a server would either look for gaps in the energy levels of a given track or create an uneven "chess" pattern, inserting data bits in areas where they are unlikely to affect the sound. Authorized software could then piece together a signature from the resulting information, identifying who bought a given track without requiring a separate digital rights layer that might restrict which devices can play the audio file.

Because the system is dependent on the actual structure of the music, it would make stripping the watermark extremely difficult, according to Microsoft. As the data would be seamlessly integrated with the sound, there would be no easily identifiable text or other data that could be altered. The inherently semi-random nature of bit placement would also prevent hackers from easily predicting where the watermark signature would appear. In one implementation, the media encoder that writes the signature could start the process at random points in tracks to further randomize the watermark.

While Microsoft has not announced plans to use the scheme and is not under any obligation to do so, the patent gives the Redmond, Washington-based firm the ability to launch a DRM-free music service while still giving its content providers a chance to locate and take action against the true pirates. The technique would also be universal and could survive use in different audio formats such as MP3 or live digital audio broadcasts, and therefore allow Microsoft to offer music compatible with the iPod and others that decline support of Microsoft-only standards.

The company previously said it was exploring the possibility of offering DRM-free songs in the wake of Universal Music's trial run, which gave Amazon, Wal-Mart, and artists' music stores an opportunity to sell the music label's catalog without restrictions. Microsoft has until recently endorsed DRM systems such as its proprietary Zune store and the wider-spread PlaysForSure system built into Windows Media. Both the company and its main challenger, Apple, have suffered as hackers repeatedly discovered ways to remove DRM and listen to potentially illegal but also untraceable copies.

by MacNN Staff




  1. dwoodruff

    Joined: Dec 1969



    the three dozen Zune users can now have DRM free music

  1. cooner

    Joined: Dec 1969



    Interesting concept. Now the question: Is Microsoft really working on implementing this kind of technology? Or did they just file the patent so they can sit on it and file a lawsuit against anyone else who tries something simliar? :P

  1. ttrostel

    Joined: Dec 1969



    People have been researching steganography for music for years. They must need a pretty specific algorithm to avoid prior art for this one.

  1. MisterMe

    Joined: Dec 1969



    A different kind of DRM is still DRM.

  1. Geobunny

    Joined: Dec 1969


    re misterme

    This isn't DRM as it doesn't lock the file into being played on a specific device, nor does it prevent copying of the file. What it DOES do, is make it possible to determine who purchased the file in the first place, so that if and when someone does distribute it illegally, the powers that be will be able to trace where it came from and who paid for it.

    ...and therein lies the flaw. What it still does not do is prove who actually shared the file. Without the ability to prove that Mr X who paid for the file was the same person sitting at computer Y who performed the actions required to transfer said file onto machines A, B, C and D

  1. chas_m



    But this isn't DRM

    Since it doesn't in any way restrict what you do with it. There's no "R" (or for that matter "M") in it.

    Of course, it makes the buyer legally responsible for obeying the law, and gives the copyright holder a way to retroactively punish lawbreakers -- and thus I'm sure we'll hear howls of irresponsibility from the "I have a right to steal" crowd -- but overall I think MS is definitely more on the right track with this than their previous solutions. This is definitely a moment in history -- MS coming up with something that might be a good idea!!!

  1. Geobunny

    Joined: Dec 1969



    then they have no case.

    /Sorry, lost my train of thought and posted having forgotten to finish my sentence! Oops.

  1. vallette

    Joined: Dec 1969


    Worse then DRM

    I'd rather have a DRM scheme that "reminds" me of restrictions then something that "stealthy" tracks my actions.

    What happens if my iPod or computer is stolen? Am I still responsible for the use of my music? What if my son or daughter sends a song to a friend who then posts it online (and what's to stop them) will I be held responsible?

    Personally I don't have a problem with DRM and if recording industry wants it they should be up front about it and not pretend they're providing something they're not.

  1. Peter Bonte

    Joined: Dec 1969


    This is dangerous

    What happens when my mp3 player or thumb-drive gets stolen? Just pay the MPAA $250.000 per song that the thief (or ex-girlfriend) uploaded on the internet?

    I rather have the iTunes DRM.

  1. coldfusion1970

    Joined: Dec 1969


    re:this is dangerous

    The only problem with the Apple DRM is that if Apple go bust, then you've lost all your music.

    I prefer the M$ DRM scheme.

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