New Watermarking Tech Probably Won't Impact Piracy (Which Isn't Even a Big Deal Anyway?)

Watermarking audio files is nothing new, but a team of international researchers think they've found a way to improve it. On June 30, scientists from Sydney's Deakin University and Aizu University in Japan published an article about their new watermarking technology, which they say is better-designed to resist music pirates' attempts to strip audio files of their watermarks. Though the news has been hailed by some as an unprecedented obstacle to piracy, the researchers' discovery raises more questions about watermarking's effectiveness in the global war against piracy. 

The process of watermarking implants an inaudible yet traceable marker within the sound waves of an audio file so that if the song or album in question is found online (say, on a peer-to-peer sharing network) by its distributing record label, like Sony or Universal, that company can then trace it back to the illegal upload source. Once embedded, the identifying signal cannot be removed -- though music pirates can theoretically "scrub" watermarks by cutting out part of the song, changing the pitch, or speeding it up or slowing it down -- without damaging the audio quality.

"It would be quite difficult to remove it and keep the music pristine," explains David Hughes, SVP technology at the Recording Industry Association of America. "You hear the term 'robustness,' or 'survivability,' or 'tamper-proof.'" 

Professor Wanlei Zhou, head of Deakin's School of Technology, told Billboard his team's watermarking technology was robust enough to withstand attempts to remove the watermark. In contrast to the six other methods they tested, which had a detection rate of between 40 and 90 precent, theirs detected the watermark (after testing common attacks like mp3 compression, re-sampling, and adjusting the amplitude) nearly 100 percent of the time. "If the industry is interested in that technology," he says, "it can become a product the whole society can benefit from." 

That's all very well and good, says Hughes, but watermark removal isn't the problem -- marketplace adoption is. When the iTunes store launched in 2003, every song was encrypted with FairPlay, a digital rights management (DRM)-system. Those songs would then only play on select Apple devices, which was the iPod but now includes iPads, iPhones, Apple TVs, etc. Following a series of anti-trust complaints against Apple, the dominant digital retailer at the time, Amazon launched its own DRM-free music store with over 2 million tracks from an assortment of major and indie labels, none of which were traceable back to the initial track uploader; they only tracked where the song was purchased.

The initiative "represents the music industry's clearest repudiation yet of the elaborate copy-protection schemes it once staked its future on," wrote Wired's David Kravets. Since then, the vast majority of watermarks have been only stamped on pre-releases sent within the music industry.

"If [Amazon] is trying to sell 300,000 copies of Justin Timberlake's new single, there's a lot of processing power going on, there's a big database to keep track of, they're putting customer ID numbers in each song... it's a big pain in the ass," adds Hughes. "They probably don't see a lot of value -- because it's not pre-release, it's about the song being widely distributed."

"Most commercial focus and attention has been on that period of time: once [the album] is released, it's almost impossible to control it," says Gunnar Siewert, representative for watermarked music promotion company PromoJukeBox. Though he doesn't know too much about the new Australian study, he doesn't think there's a need for another technology.

"Also, we have very robust watermarking technology," he adds.   

Additionally, statistics on how much piracy negatively impacts sales can be contradictory. Earlier this year, a study found that Sweden's anti-piracy legislation, IPRED, boosted music sales while reducing internet traffic. And yet, in 2013, the European Commission's Joint Research Centre demonstrated that online piracy didn't hurt music sales. Music streaming services have also made piracy less necessary if one wants to listen to a song without purchasing it. 

After Zhou's team publishes their paper in September, they'll start looking for corporate sponsors to fund a wider study of their new technology, which they hope will lead to market adoption. "I've gotten lots of calls from newspapers, radio, TV in the past few days," he says, laughing. "Hopefully after that they'll call one of my team members."