Music download store uses watermark, not DRM

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.

Major record labels have mostly chosen DRM to protect their copyrights, limiting the number of copies buyers can make of a downloaded track, and restricting the music players they can use to listen to it.

However, Akuma is taking a softer approach: The music store sells MP3 files which can be played on almost any digital music player, but adds a unique tag to each download using watermark technology from Germany’s renowned 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 unauthorized 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 percent of the labels we offer are embedded with watermarks,” said Sascha Hottes, a managing director of H2 Media Factory GmbH, 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 said.

Around 350,000 songs, mostly from independent labels, are currently available on the Akuma portal, with 700,000 planned by the end of the year. The roster includes artists such as Katie Melua, Toni Braxton, Simply Red and Deep Purple.

A single song title costs

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