RIAA On The Digital-Radio Warpath

Industry pushing feds for copy-protection rules.

The recording industry, already reeling from online music theft, is pushing the federal government to head off what executives fear is a potentially bigger piracy threat in the emerging world of digital radio.

In documents and meetings at the FCC and in communications with other industry trade groups, the RIAA is attempting to convince the government of the need for copyright protection for sound recordings aired on digital radio.

While the RIAA's campaign has been largely behind the scenes, the association will take a higher profile on the issue this week as its CEO and chairman, Mitch Bainwol, hopes to make it a focus of a hearing scheduled on copyright issues facing Webcasters. The RIAA also plans to file formal comments with the commission on the need for digital radio copy protections when final comments on a range of issues surrounding the technology are due June 16.

"We're in favor of HD radio," Bainwol said in an interview. "It offers great benefits for consumers and everyone involved, but we're not blind to several concerns. Someone could cherry-pick songs off a broadcast and fill up a personal library and then post it on Kazaa."

Digital technology brings to radio signals quality similar to digital television. An FM digital radio broadcast brings listeners CD-quality sound, while digital AM radio sounds like FM. The digital radio stream also gives broadcasters the ability to multicast their signals or use them for data delivery and other services.

In 2002, the FCC agreed to interim rules for the service when it selected the in-band, on-channel digital radio transmission technology produced by iBiquity Digital, a Baltimore-based company that licenses the technology. There are more than 100 broadcast stations nationwide using the technology, and several high-end audio manufacturers are making digital receivers. IBiquity chief operating officer Jeff Jury said the company is willing to build in copy protection but wants the rights holders, broadcasters and consumer electronics makers to agree to the regime.

"If there's a consensus among the groups, we're willing to go along," he said. "But given the state of the technology, it's premature to worry about this."

The current proceeding will set the rules of service for broadcasters, telling them exactly what service can be offered and outlining their obligations. The RIAA hopes to convince policy-makers that copy-control technology is an imperative.

"We're concerned for ourselves and the artists," Bainwol said. "If you don't have protection, it undermines the future investment in music."