Digital Watermarks Are Not The Answer

from the the-next-rabbit-hole dept

It was quite predictable that as the recording industry finally realized that DRM was a bad idea that it would move on to digital watermarking. The idea sounds appealing. It doesn’t have the feature that people hate about DRM: preventing you from doing what you want with the music you’ve purchased — but it does have a number of other downsides. First, it tends to degrade the quality of the audio. Second, it’s often relatively easy to remove the watermark, making it effectively useless. Third, if watermarks are used to link a specific file to a specific user (which the industry insists it isn’t doing… yet), it suddenly becomes a huge liability just to have those music files. Imagine if you lose your iPod full of watermarked tracks, and all of those tracks find their way onto file sharing sites? Even more importantly, the whole concept of watermarking is counterproductive to what music files should be about. If the industry were smart and understood the basic economics of what was happening, they’d want people to be sharing music. They should want people to be their biggest (free!) promoters of music. They should want people to be spreading the music of their musicians as a way to get the word out. The whole concept of watermarking goes against that very idea. It’s more backwards thinking from an industry that is more focused on protecting an old way of doing business, rather than recognizing the opportunities of a new way of doing business.

Filed Under: , , , , ,
Companies: riaa

Rate this comment as insightful
Rate this comment as funny
You have rated this comment as insightful
You have rated this comment as funny
Flag this comment as abusive/trolling/spam
You have flagged this comment
The first word has already been claimed
The last word has already been claimed
Insightful Lightbulb icon Funny Laughing icon Abusive/trolling/spam Flag icon Insightful badge Lightbulb icon Funny badge Laughing icon Comments icon

Comments on “Digital Watermarks Are Not The Answer”

Subscribe: RSS Leave a comment
Anonymous Coward says:

A couple of points. I read the Wired article, I read the article you linked to talking about quality and then I read the blog that you linked to in that article.

No where in any of those did they talk about the quality of the audio being hurt. Video yes. It talked about the ease of removing the watermark from video but not the audio. Either you know something that wasn’t in any of the links, didn’t link to anything about the subject of this article or you just made it up.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Um, do you have any experience in editing movies or other audio/video stuff? Do you know what a watermark is?

The ‘watermark’ in an audio only file can’t be a visual watermark like on video. It will still be embedded in the data of the file however. This means that unless the watermark is VERY poorly put in, you’ll be removing legitimate pieces of data from the file in the extraction of the watermark.

This could be observed by a quiet ‘clicking’ noise in the background, such as with a badly scratched CD at best. At worst, the audio stops entirely during the portion that had the watermark. That depends on the quality of the watermark, quality of the work to remove it, and the quality of the player you are using. Some players will stop playing if the audio ‘gets stuck’ for too long. Both digital players and CD players.

You should really learn a bit about the technology in question before you bitch that someone doesn’t know what they are talking about.

Matt borse says:

I know that there is a lot of corporate greed out there, but to me it seems you haven’t looked at this from the perspective of the recording industry.

Besides the music which they produce, they have no other goods to sell.

Sure they can make money from concerts, but most bands don’t want to tour if they aren’t getting decent money for it.

Take Streetlight Manifesto for exampel, in their new record they did a lot of the work, and put it in alot of their own money so they didn’t have to pay back a recording label, and they don’t care if their music is paid for or not because they will make money from a concert.

But if you are going to talk about this new great “Business Model” for recording companies, please tell me, what are actually going to sell?

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Besides the music which they produce, they have no other goods to sell.

That’s simply untrue. They’ve always had plenty of other goods to sell and they’ve always sold those other goods. A big part of what they sell is the reputation and the popularity of the band, and use that to drive sales of scarce goods: cds, concerts, access to the band, merchandise, etc. etc., etc. The list goes on and on.

Sure they can make money from concerts, but most bands don’t want to tour if they aren’t getting decent money for it.

This statement confuses me. The whole point is they can make more money touring, because they’ll have a bigger fanbase if they give away the music to create that fanbase. So why wouldn’t they be getting decent money from it?

But if you are going to talk about this new great “Business Model” for recording companies, please tell me, what are actually going to sell?

I’ve discussed that at great length elsewhere:

Anonymous Coward says:

they had nothing to sell in the first place. Now in the digital age the artists can sell them selves they no longer need someone else to publish them the business is broken and it is never going to be fixed because what they could have sold they fought to the death of their industry to the point that the artists have figured out the recording companies are no longer needed or even wanted not by the fans and not by the artists. So the new model is get a haircut and get a REAL JOB

Mike (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Why do people still read Techdirt? This stuff reads like it was written by a high-schooler. No research, no analysis beyond the Techdirt party line, nothing. Can you at least CONSIDER thinking things over before posting?

Now it’s these types of comments that fascinate me. Rather than point to a *single* point that they feel is incorrect or problematic, they just insult us.

If you think something is incorrect or not well researched, that’s why we have the comments. Go ahead and tell us what’s wrong. If it is incorrect, we’ll correct it and give you credit. If we disagree that it’s incorrect, then we’ll discuss it.

However, resorting to just insults isn’t particularly effective or convincing. It just makes me think that you don’t have an argument, but you don’t *like* what I’m saying.

Prove me wrong. Tell me where I’m wrong, so we can discuss. Don’t just insult me. All it does is reflect poorly on you.

MATT says:

may as well have called it DCE all over again

remember digital consumer enablement as they liked to call it? They may as well call it that software all over again, because this is the same thing, round 2.

AKA: bad, bad idea. Especially if this is done without one’s consent. I don’t think anyone would like it if I placed a virus on their computer simply to make sure that my rights are respected when you put my stuff on your pc, would they? Surely since you don’t see it happen you don’t need to worry about it, right?

Does this sound familiar? Rootkit style anyone?

Andrew says:


I might be wrong, but I was pretty sure than music on an iPod was only a “one-way” movement. You put stuff on you listen to it, you delete it off. No copy allowed. It was another stupid stipulation that the Recording Industry insisted upon. This is the case as the MP3 player part, not the flash-disk part (obviously), but if you are storing music on the flash-disk part, you already know what you’re doing.

SeattleGuy says:

Microsoft almost has it right.....

…..and so does Mike. The Zune allows you to share your music with anyone for three days or three plays. That is actually brilliant. The only thing that MS has gotten right in recent recorded history.

The newer business models will demand that the word gets out about a band or song, that only happens when the music is free to flow like water down a hill

When Michael Robertson created and allowed the free distribution of music, the stage was set. The failure to benefit from the business model has mostly been due to the RIAA and the rabid right who actually believe that if you can control the source you can control the supply.

That control didn’t work 10 years ago and won’t work tomorrow. It didn’t work with DRM and won’t work with watermarking. It didn’t work with ATRAC and won’t work with AAC.

And the movie industry had better make a deal with the writers guild and set their sights on figuring out how to make money off of the Internet rather than fighting the advances in technology.

Another Andrew says:


So, watermarking is a form of stenography, where you ‘hide’ information inside other data. Well-done water-marking won’t be noticeable in an audio, video, or image file (unless, as in video or image, that’s your goal) but it is still essentially something extra. Pops and clicks in audio are more likely symptoms of (poorly done) watermarking than of ‘removing’ the watermark.

I’m not sure I understand where people get that Mike is wrong or retarded here. Watermarking won’t stop pirating, and as with DRM it will just inconvenience legitimate customers: in this case, the fear that your watermark would be compromised or your files stolen, which can rather easily happen without you knowing since it’s all digital.

Wolferz (profile) says:

I duno...

I understand your point and, ideally, I agree. However, if done properly watermarks could be a viable middle ground between the desires of the record/movie industry and the desires of music/video consumers.

It is possible for a watermark to be placed in both an audio and video file in such a way that it is not easily noticed, much less likely to degrade quality in a perceptible manner. It also doesn’t root kit your computer, degrade performance, or prevent you from using one purchase on every device you own.

Also, if they do decide to tie individual files to individual purchases from consumers it could easily be done by making the watermark in the form of a serial number. That serial number would be linked internally to a phone number and email. Every file gets a different serial number so as to limit the possibility of any one getting framed. If the file is shared, with or without the purchasers permission, the serial number would by itself be benign. However, it would still allow the record industry to take legal action by comparing the serial number to their internal database and to do so with far greater accuracy than current methods.

While removing such a watermark would be far easier to remove than the recording industry might like the average Joe would not be able to do it. This would provide a powerful road block for the primary source of file sharing’s success: accessibility. Audio and video piracy would be pushed back until it was no more prevalent than software piracy and it would rob many file sharing services of their primary source of funding… possibly starving some of them out. The RIAA and MPAA aren’t going to think in these terms though and their aggressiveness will allow the fires of dissent to burn a while longer.

If you take a look at this from the recording industries point of view there are some more considerations. The majority of people who buy CDs don’t go to concerts or they will only go to a handful over the course of their entire lifetime. They don’t go to the band or label’s website. They don’t buy branded memorabilia unless they happen upon it while shopping. They don’t purchase or even expose themselves to the possibility of purchasing anything outside the CD or download. Free music to these people is a free lunch… and lost revenue for the RIAA. The MPAA on the other hand would benefit easily from it.

I think there is a massive advertising opportunity for music and video to make revenue without having to sell the media. There are, however, technical issues to be addressed for audio files. How do you keep the advertisement from being removed from the track in it’s shared form and how do you keep the advertisement from becoming an annoyance to the user. Surely you could make allowances for the file to not play the advertisement after the first time it is played on an individual computer, but when copied onto a new computer or device it should play the advertisement once more. You could also create a delivery system similar to youtube or rhapsody while allowing for the audio to be streamed directly to a device over cellphone, wifi, and satellite networks. This also has the advantage of allowing the advertisements to be completely up-to-date. Either of these would require a new audio format or a new delivery system and for the numerous software and hardware players out there to support them. Not exactly an inexpensive solution.

It would be nice if the recording industry would pursue giving their customers what they clearly want and from a sort of Babylonian view point I think they owe us that much. Yet, that is not what is going to happen. You and I both have been pointing out for some time that the RIAA and MPAA’s methods would never succeed because file sharing was not going to go away. Well… unless a massive amount of opposition is brought against watermarking, more so than DRM, it would enable them to do exactly what we said they couldn’t. They will be able to file lawsuits with reasonable certainty that the defendant shared the files and will no longer need to ask for settlements. They will be able to win court battles easily and will be able to sue for even larger sums of money. They might not stop file sharing but they will certainly have an opportunity to turn the tide on illegal file sharing.

There are two sides to every coin… and the RIAA/MPAA just shined theirs.

Brett says:


I might be wrong, but I was pretty sure than music on an iPod was only a “one-way” movement. You put stuff on you listen to it, you delete it off.

Yes, you are wrong. There is plenty of free software which will suck music and video off any ipod.

Watermarking is just another bad idea by the music industry, how anyone can argue it isn’t is beyond me. Unless of course you are one of the people bleeding still bleeding a fat pay cheque out of overpriced music ๐Ÿ˜›

Zachary Alvernaz says:


My dad commented to me a while back (I am only 17) that during his college days in the early ’80s that the music labels actually encouraged the use of copying music and sharing it with friends, a perfectly reasonable business model. If one shares his music with other potential listeners, then they get exposed to the music and are more likely to want to buy that label’s/band’s music in the future. Seems like the recording industry is having issues with inconsistency.

Paul says:

undetectable watermarks

It is possible to digitally watermark a digital audio file without it having any impact whatsoever on the sound of the file.

All that EXIF data in your jpegs isn’t visible when you are looking at the image. All that ID3 information in your MP3’s is not hurting the sound of your music.

Why must you ALWAYS resort to FUD Mike?

PaulT (profile) says:

Re: undetectable watermarks

“All that ID3 information in your MP3’s is not hurting the sound of your music.”

Why would they use ID3 tags to watermark the file when virtually any modern MP3 playing program can alter those tags?

If you read into what’s being considered for implementation, it’s an alteration of the audio data itself. Therefore, some people will notice the difference and it will involve damaging the audio to some degree to remove it.

Even without considering this, there are other serious issues. While better than DRM, watermarking leaves itself open to abuse and leading to false criminal accusations against you (Mike’s stolen iPod example, or a recent case where a reviewer was ostracised because a watermarked review CD found itself in someone else’s hands – the 3rd party P2Ped it and the reviewer got the blame though he wasn’t responsible.).

While customers who buy watermarked tracks are at least able to choose how and where they play it (unlike with DRM), it still depends on the idea of assuming that every customer is a criminal rather than simply offering a desirable product or service at a desirable price.

Captain Nemo says:

Isn’t ID3 kinda… y’know… easily separable from the actual audio data? What if you did a li’l conversion to something like WAV, or FLAC? No matter what, you’re going to HAVE to change audio data to make sure the watermark remains. And by doing that, you risk alienating the insane, obsessive audiophile crowd I love so very very much.

SilverWolf (user link) says:

RE: Undetectable watermarks

“It is possible to digitally watermark a digital audio file without it having any impact whatsoever on the sound of the file.”

Sure it’s possible, it’s also possible to fake the watermark or for a hacker to break into your system and steal your music files.

How would you like to be hit with a $222,000 fine because some hacker in china stole your mp3’s and put them online ?

The bottom line here is that More Tracking = Less Privacy.

This watermarking thing may be the Record Industry’s wet dream but as usual it’ll be you and me that pays the price in the end.

Wolferz (profile) says:

Re: RE: Undetectable watermarks

I don’t see a hacker in china stealing mp3s. Mp3’s seem like a serious waste of effort for something that, despite common belief to the contrary, isn’t all that easy to do in a targeted manner. If malware is used to gain access to the files then having the computer taken to a shop near the time of the files showing up online would provide a line of defense to be used in court. If the laptop is stolen then report it. The police report would get any lawsuit thrown out instantly.

Any large scale theft of such files would likely involve a lost or stolen laptop or data theft by computer techs and family. All of which can be proven in court with reasonable effort.

Also, I think stealing mp3’s off some one else’s computer would be more difficult than taking files ripped from other sources or even purchased outright and then obfuscating the watermark to prevent identification… similar methods are used by fan subbing and movie pirating communities now.

Lawrence D'Oliveiro says:

"Undetectable Watermark" Is An Oxymoron

Remember that most of the popular sound formats (MP3, AAC, WMA etc) use lossy compression. What does that mean? It means that data that you can’t hear gets discarded. Therefore, if a watermarking scheme is based on making inaudible changes to the sound data, then the watermark is liable to be lost during compression.

There would be a way around this, which takes advantage of limitations of a particular sound compression codec (bits you can’t hear, that it doesn’t discard). But those limitations would be different for a different codec: so all you have to do is convert the sound file to another codec, and you can virtually guarantee that any watermarking has been erased.

By the way, did you know your comment system tends to lose subject lines with quotation marks in them?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: "Undetectable Watermark" Is An Oxymoron

There would be a way around this, which takes advantage of limitations of a particular sound compression codec (bits you can’t hear, that it doesn’t discard). But those limitations would be different for a different codec: so all you have to do is convert the sound file to another codec, and you can virtually guarantee that any watermarking has been erased.

True, but you’re also virtually guaranteeing a loss of quality. In any case, watermarking isn’t going to be used to catch the best pirates out there, but with changing secret watermarking schemes, it seems likely to find many (including some innocents with viruses, unfortunately).

Add Your Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here

Comment Options:

Make this the or (get credits or sign in to see balance) what's this?

What's this?

Techdirt community members with Techdirt Credits can spotlight a comment as either the "First Word" or "Last Word" on a particular comment thread. Credits can be purchased at the Techdirt Insider Shop ยป

Follow Techdirt

Techdirt Daily Newsletter

Techdirt Deals
Techdirt Insider Discord
The latest chatter on the Techdirt Insider Discord channel...