The RIAA has released a specification for a watermark payload to be inserted into music files. It intends this specfication to be a voluntary standard to be adopted by record labels, service providers, and other participants in the digital music value chain.
The spec calls for a payload of 108 bits of data, which falls within the limitations of most practical watermarking schemes. The bits are divided into three independent parts called layers. The first layer contains flags to indicate parental advisory, copyright status, and whether the content is pre-release.
The second layer contains identifiers for the content owner, the content itself, and the distribution channel (e.g., a retailer). These three identfiers, when put together, constitute a globally unique ID for content 52 bits in length — allowing (in theory) for several quadrillion different identifiers.
The third layer is currently undefined; the RIAA contemplates future use of Layer 3 for transaction IDs, such as for identifying individual downloads.
If watermarking is going to be adopted to scale in the media industry, then standards are very necessary. In broad terms, two things need to be standardized: insertion and detection algorithms, and data payloads. Standardizing on algorithms is unlikely. Several vendors have proprietary techniques which are their “secret sauce” and whose effectiveness depends on the application.
But payload standardization benefits all watermarking vendors. Payload standardization would facilitate communication and interoperability among the various entities that have to insert, detect, or share data, including content owners, aggregators, retailers, content delivery networks, software vendors, and even consumer device makers.
The RIAA’s proposed payload standard is useful for many different applications. It’s not a content protection scheme per se, as the failed SDMI Level I standard was back ten years ago, though it does contain bits that could be read by consumer devices for the purpose of copyright enforcement.
The primary purpose of the standard is to help identify content. Content identification is not only application-neutral but can also enable various new types of applications for watermarking, such as contextual advertising, content marketing, digital asset management, and monetization of transformational content uses; see the white paper I wrote last year for more on this.
The release of this spec should be a great help in pushing the music industry towards adoption of watermarking for a variety of purposes. Its publication should also help to defuse concerns about privacy or hidden agendas — something that the Digital Watermarking Alliance, a trade association for watermarking technology vendors, has been trying to accomplish over the last couple of years.