What if everything was watermarked?

by Mathew on January 13, 2008 · 10 comments

According to a piece at Wired, now that digital-rights management seems to be going the way of the dodo, some labels are thinking about watermarking as a replacement. The piece contains this not-totally-comforting comment about the current watermarking process:

“At its most precise, a watermark could encode a unique serial number that a music company could match to the original purchaser. So far, though, labels say they won’t do that… Sony’s and Universal’s DRM-free lineups contain ‘anonymous’ watermarks that won’t trace to an individual.”

So, there you have it. The industry could trace specific tracks to you, but they promise they won’t do that. Reassuring, isn’t it? I’m sure at one point Sony would have promised that it would never install a Trojan virus or back-door rootkit on your computer when you bought one of the company’s CDs too, and we know how that turned out.

I’m trying to imagine a world in which every piece of content was watermarked in some way. What would happen to mashups? How would it affect the principle of fair use? Would Internet service providers start to block specific activity on the Web based on whether a watermark was detected? And would the DMCA-driven “take it down first and ask questions later” policy extend to virtually every kind of content?

Just this afternoon I was listening to The Ongoing History of New Music on 102.1, and host Alan Cross was talking about the “Amen break” — a legendary drum riff that appeared in a song by The Winstons in 1969 and then started showing up in rap and hip-hop samples in the 1980s, and has since appeared in dozens of popular hits.

What would have happened if GC Coleman (the drummer) or Richard Spencer — the composer who holds the rights to the song, and is now a high-school social studies teacher — had a watermark on that sample? Would they have become rich, or would hip-hop have come up with a different sound? Would all the bands that used part of the track have been sued? Would anyone care? I wonder.

  • http://www.technovia.co.uk ianbetteridge

    “What would happen to mashups?”

    Nothing, at a guess. I can't imagine a technical system which would allow a watermark to survive the typical cut/paste/sample process of a mashup. Of course, if someone just used the whole track, it might – but in that case, it's hardly a creative mashup, is it?

    “How would it affect the principle of fair use?”

    It wouldn't. Using music as an example, were I to use a track and be covered by currect fair use tems, then it wouldn't matter that it was traceable to me – what I was doing would, by definition, be legal. Of course, were that song to be found in its entirety on your friendly local file sharing service, being downloaded by thousands of people, then there is no fair use defence.

    “Would Internet service providers start to block specific activity on the Web based on whether a watermark was detected?”

    Unlikely, unless the ISP simply wanted to cut the amount of P2P activity – and there are easier ways of doing that. Far better to just maintain the current fiction that they have no responsibility for what travels across their networks, allowing them to continue to claim “common carrier” status.

    Plus, it's worth baring in mind what Nick Carr says in his article:

    “Such watermarks could be used by ISPs to automatically block the transmission of files through peer-to-peer networks, achieving one of the aims of DRM by other means.”

    If they did, indeed, block such traffic why should we care? After all, the law doesn't allow you to share copyrighted material with thousands of strangers for free. Watermarking doesn't prevent you from exercising the rights the law already allows you over copyrighted material that you buy. It *could* be used to prosecute you *if* you break the law. Isn't that a good thing?

    “What would have happened if GC Coleman (the drummer) or Richard Spencer — the composer who holds the rights to the song, and is now a high-school social studies teacher — had a watermark on that sample?”

    Surely the point of watermarking is to be able to trace the provenance of a piece of music? Given that, in the case you cite, we actually know the provenance of that sample anyway, it seems likely that watermarking would have made precisely no difference. Would more bands have been sued? No – we already know where that sample has come from (and it's easy to spot).

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Well I guess there's nothing to worry about then, is there Ian :-)

    Except that fair use isn't so easy to determine, and I would expect
    there to be many more cases where unknowing users were prosecuted
    unfairly. And ISPs have been known to do all sorts of things — and
    are under pressure from the RIAA and others to filter more rather than
    less.

    As for the technicalities of watermarking, Microsoft's El Dorado
    (according to the Wired piece) resists “all typical kinds of
    processing, including compression, equalization, D/A and A/D
    conversion, recording on analog tape and so forth. It is also designed
    to survive malicious attacks that attempt to remove or modify the
    watermark from the signal, including changes in time and frequency
    scales, pitch shifting and cut/paste editing.”

  • http://www.pwnership.com tomreeves

    Pardon me if you'd rather not have a link posted, but YouTube has a great video on the Amen brake. The link: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5SaFTm2bcac

    I love your blog.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks a lot, Tom — relevant links are always welcome.

  • http://www.pwnership.com tomreeves

    I linked to this article and also the YouTube video. And complemented the author. The juxtaposition of the Wired article and the discussion of the Amen break video is brilliant. I wish I had something more insightful to add, but both my football teams lost. I'm going to go sulk now.

  • Aaron

    Heh… I listened to that same episode of the History of New Music. Great show, great piece… I do wish he would have actually played more samples, rather than just using the (rather poor, IMO) example he did.

    Not to mention completely ripping off this YouTube video. Poor form, Alan Cross!

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    He got a lot from Wikipedia too, I think — still, great piece.

  • Aaron

    Heh… I listened to that same episode of the History of New Music. Great show, great piece… I do wish he would have actually played more samples, rather than just using the (rather poor, IMO) example he did.

    Not to mention completely ripping off this YouTube video. Poor form, Alan Cross!

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    He got a lot from Wikipedia too, I think — still, great piece.

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