MP3 creators develop tool against online music piracy

Fraunhofer Institute has developed prototype technology to help curb the sharp rise in online music piracy, which, ironically, has been enabled through another invention of the renowned German research group: MP3 audio compression.

Researchers at the Fraunhofer Integrated Publication and Information Systems Institute have successfully tested a software system, based on the group’s own digital watermarking technology, for tracking pirated audio files in P-to-P (peer-to-peer) file-sharing networks, said Michael Kip, a spokesman for the institute.

Kip referred to the Fraunhofer approach as an alternative to DRM (digital rights management) systems, which he said require special players and are prone to hacking.

While watermarking technology isn’t new per se, this is the first time it has been used in a system to automatically track pirating in P-to-P networks, according to Kip.

The system lets content providers, such as music studios, embed a watermark in their downloadable MP3 files. Watermark technology makes slight changes to data in both sound and image files. For instance, the change could be a higher volume intensity in a tiny part of a song or a brighter color in a minuscule part of a picture. Even the best trained human eyes and ears, according to Kip, can’t detect the change.

The digital media watermark used in the Fraunhofer system also contains a “hash value,” which creates a link between the content provider and registered purchaser. “The hash value is like a fingerprint; it contains unique information about the user,” Kip said. “The software that we’ve developed can automatically search for fingerprints.”

The Fraunhofer approach differs from others in that it doesn’t monitor the individuals who illegally download music but rather scans for content that has been illegally uploaded.

“If, for instance, you purchase and download a CD, burn a copy and give it to a friend and that person puts it on a file sharing network, our system will trace that music back to you and, depending on the legal system of the country you’re in, you could be [hit] with an expensive fine,” Kip said. “This could certainly help deter online music piracy.”

Fraunhofer envisions the prototype software as an application that content providers can install on their own servers for automatically monitoring P-to-P networks around the clock.

The institute will demonstrate the technology next month at the Cebit trade show in Hanover, Germany, according to Kip.

Asked if widely used MP3 technology isn’t partly to blame for online music piracy, he said: “Yes and no. You can use a knife to cut bread or kill someone. It’s a tool that can be misused.”

Research on compression of music files was conducted in the 1980s by a team of scientists at the Fraunhofer Institute for Integrated Circuits. Their development, the MPEG-1 Layer 3 algorithm, was first shortened to MPEG Layer 3 and later to MP3.

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