Digital Watermarking And The Performing Right – Part 1

By • July 11, 1998

Americans have come to expect a high level of performance from financial service providers in the Information Age. This expectation includes total accountability and transparency of operation with regard to accounts, i.e. your bank, law firm, stock brokerage, credit union, department store and corner gas station. If they handle your money and send you a reckoning, you expect it to jibe, not jive. If, in the event the services you receive are not to your satisfaction, you are free to take your business elsewhere.

I would like to draw a correlation between our PROs (performing rights organizations) and other financial service providers in America. Ultimately, our PROs should provide a standard of completeness and accuracy which rivals or exceeds other American enterprises in a digital age. Further, the future growth and viability of our PROs may be contingent in part on the accountability they show to their respective memberships and clienteles.

In all candor, most of the composers and songwriters I know are compelled to monitor their catalogs on a regular basis in an attempt to reconcile known broadcast performances to their PRO statements. In all fairness to our PROs, theirs is an enormous task in an age of burgeoning media outlets- but that is, after all, part of the service we pay for as composers, songwriters and publishers.

For a variety of reasons, our PROs have not evolved their tracking technologies to be commensurate with the mainstream of American industry. We’ve had ATM cards for twenty years, bank cards for thirty. Millions of automated electronic transactions occur on a daily basis. They are statistically precise, automated and virtually free from human error and subjectivity. And it’s no great stretch to realize that the broadcast performance of a piece of music is not so different from any other electronic transaction. Yet I have never heard a public utterance nor seen a printed statement from any domestic PRO with regard to automating the process of tracking broadcast music. That is, until January 15th, 1998.

Enter SESAC. The least known of our domestic performing rights societies, SESAC was founded in 1930 and is privately owned and operated. Though much smaller than ASCAP or BMI, SESAC also has big names on its roster: Bob Dylan, Neil Diamond and Paul Shaffer, to name only a few.

In January, SESAC announced its intention to implement ARIS/MusiCode™ technology into its repertory. SESAC advertises this digital watermarking as viable for the purposes of automating the identification of musical performances in broadcast media. In short, the claim is that MusiCode™ can identify any piece of music which carries its embedded alpha-numeric code.

I attended a demonstration of this technology in Los Angeles on March 26th of this year, jointly sponsored by SESAC and ARIS. Within a week of that time, similar demos were presented in Nashville and New York City. Inasmuch as any technology can be proven to work in a three-hour demo, I was overwhelmingly convinced of the capabilities of this system. It should be noted that DISCOVER Magazine has since selected Aris Technologies MusiCode™ Audio Watermarking System as a Finalist in its 1998 Awards for Technical Innovation.

Here are some of the advertised claims and features of the MusiCode™ system:
• The encoding and monitoring system is cost-effective and performs with more accuracy and efficiency than conventional systems

• The identifying code embeds permanently into a music master and is secure against tampering

• The code itself is totally transparent and inaudible

• The code is robust and survives generational losses including analog to analog (A/A), analog to digital (A/D), digital to analog (D/A) and digital to digital (D/D) transfers

• Code identification is impervious to pitch shifting and time compression/expansion

• The code survives low sample rate conversions and high digital compression ratios

Once encoded, ARIS states that the code “travels” with the music through any release on CD, DVD, all formats of video or audio tape, and can be readily identified through any broadcast or cable-carried medium. At the demonstration, the monitoring system consisted of a microphone and a small PC running the MusiCode™ software.

Encoded music was then played from different audio and video sources. The monitoring computer identified and instantaneously displayed the data embedded in the music and continued to do so about every three seconds until the music was stopped. In a single seven-second burst of music, I saw the computer identify 4 hits of the code-although the advertised specification is approximately every three seconds. This is significant in that songs and score cues which have been chopped up for editorial purposes can still be identified and reported.

Each hit contained the following data: the time displayed on a 24 hour clock; the International Standard Works Code ID (ISWC); the country of origin; the name of the publisher; the year of creation; and finally, the serial number unique to that particular recording. It was also stated that MusiCode™ was fully capable of embedding additional layers of data into the music.

With this innovation, SESAC and ARIS have shown the capability to track and report music usage to a level far exceeding any monitoring systems currently in place. And SESAC’s stated reason for utilizing this technology is “to pay composers and publishers accurately.” This raises the bar and issues a competitive challenge to every performing rights organization on the planet. That is: to comprehensively track and report the activity of their product to a level commensurate with other world-class enterprises.

In the next column, I plan to report the results of my queries to ASCAP and BMI regarding their positions on digital encoding and the automated tracking of broadcast music performances.

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