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Digital Revolutionary: Interview with Leonardo Chiariglione

The father of MP3 recently established the Digital Media Project, which aims to formulate a new standard for digital audio and video. If things proceed according to plan, the media world will never be the same
Leonardo Chiariglione



SERGIO PISTOI
A tortuous, vineyard-lined road leads to the secluded house of Leonardo Chiariglione. In this rural village near Turin, Italy, only a few locals are aware that their neighborhood engineer is the mastermind behind the revolution that has brought MP3, DVD and digital television into the lives of millions. An electronics engineer and former vice president of multimedia at the corporate research laboratories of Italian Telecom, Chiariglione is founder and chair of the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), which has established such ubiquitous digital multimedia formats as MP3 and MPEG-2.

Chiariglione would have good reason to rest on his laurels: in 1999 Time Digital ranked him among the top 50 innovators in the digital world, and his r¿sum¿ lists an impressive series of awards, including an Emmy in 1996. Instead he has just called fellow experts to arms against "the stalemate" that he believes is crippling the development of digital media. Late last year Chiariglione established the Digital Media Project (DMP), a not-for-profit organization of individuals and companies--among them giants BT, Matsushita and Mitsubishi--with the ambitious goal of formulating a new standard for digital audio and video. If things proceed according to plan, the media world will never be the same.

Scientific American.com met Chiariglione at his home (and DMP headquarters) to talk with him about this new endeavor and his vision for the future of digital media. An edited translation of that conversation follows below.


Scientific American.com: Millions of people are using digital audio and video today. Why do you say that the dream of a digital revolution hasn¿t happened ?

LC: Everyone expected that these technologies would bring huge benefits to everybody along the value chain. Creators would be given new ways to express themselves, end users would enjoy new kinds of experiences, and industries would find new opportunities for business. Ten years later, this is not happening. I don¿t see any industry that is really thriving on digital audio and video--at least not as much as they do in other sectors like consumer electronics or telecommunications. The music industry is the most dramatic example: it is still based on a physical support--the CD--that you buy, bring home and put inside a player like you did before with vinyl records or cassettes. The quality of sound is better, but the overall experience hasn¿t really changed. Technologies such as MP3 and the internet have opened the way to revolutionary digital experiences--and also to an unprecedented development of piracy. Record labels are reluctant to adopt any new technology that does not guarantee their copyrights and prefer to stick to their old business models. But if nothing changes, many users will continue to steal music. It¿s a stalemate in which everybody loses in the long run: industries miss new opportunities for business, and users will not benefit from future technological advances.

SA: How do you feel about the fact that MP3 is so often associated with music piracy?

LC: The culture of theft that turns around MP3 is detestable, and I¿m very disappointed about that. But neither MP3 nor peer-to-peer [the technology behind Napster, by which Internet users share files directly from their computers] are monsters. They are terrific technologies for distributing content with an enormous potential for business, but they are pieces of an uncompleted puzzle. Digital copyright management is the missing piece that we need.

SA: Wasn¿t it clear from the beginning that MP3 would be used to distribute music illegally?

LC: When we approved the standard in 1992 no one thought about piracy. PCs were not powerful enough to decode MP3, and internet connections were few and slow. The scenario that most had in mind was that companies would use MP3 to store music in big, powerful servers and broadcast it. It wasn¿t until the late ¿90s that PCs, the Web and then peer-to-peer created a completely different context. We were probably na¿ve, but we didn¿t expect that it would happen so fast.

SA: A number of online music stores, where you can legally download music for a fee, have started a profitable business. (Apple¿s iTunes, the leading online music store, reported in March that it had sold its first 50 millions tracks.) Are they a solution for the future?

LC: I don¿t see these systems as a solution in the long run, because they put too many limits on the users. The music is watermarked or encrypted with Digital Right Management [DRM] algorithms and is then decrypted by your player. The problem is that every store has its own proprietary system, which is incompatible with the others. Consequently, you can play music on your PC, but not in your salon CD player or in your wife¿s car, for example, because they use different systems. Where is the digital experience if you can¿t enjoy your music as easily as you did before with a disc or a cassette? Eventually people will say, "Let¿s go back to making MP3 copies. They are illegal but at least I can do what I like with them."

SA: How could you resolve this stalemate?

LC: What we need is a system that guarantees the protection of copyrights but at the same time is completely transparent and universal. With the Digital Media Project [DMP] we are working to develop a format that meets these requirements. The system will be nonproprietary, meaning that any manufacturer will be allowed to incorporate it into its products. It will also be designed to manage digital rights in a flexible way. For example, you could play a specific title until a certain date, or you could buy a subscription allowing you to play anything you want for a given period. People could even swap files on the Internet, as long as they have the right to play them. If DMP becomes the industry standard, you will be able to use music or video files as you do today with MP3 files, but legally. This will open endless opportunities.

SA: Can you build such a system with the current technology ?

LC: We don¿t know yet which technologies will be included in the format, since the DMP has just begun and we won¿t come out with full technical specifications before two years from now. However, I believe that most of the technology is already there. Formats for the compression of audio and video have attained excellent quality, and some standards, such as MPEG-21, are also designed to program which rights come with your copy [a 15-day license, for instance]. Our approach will be to integrate existing technologies and develop new ones only if we need to.

SA: With a universal platform wouldn¿t it be a disaster if the copyright protection were cracked?

LC: I don¿t think you can build a crack-proof system. But you can design one in which the algorithms used for copyright protection don¿t come as hardware but as software, so that you can update them with an Internet or wireless connection if they are cracked. Also, every manufacturer could choose its own algorithms, as long as they are compatible with the universal standard. However, our purpose is not to fight piracy. We want to create the right conditions so that users can enjoy a full digital experience legally and without the current limitations. I believe that this will remove many of the incentives that exist today for piracy.

SA: What do you envision for the future of digital media?

LC: I believe that there are hundreds of possible applications just waiting to be invented.The real value will be in providing the users with new experiences. When every published music or video is available on the Web you will need tools to catalogue and find these files. With MPEG-7, for example, you can create a simple description of a multimedia file that can be used by search engines. In the future we will have new generations of search engines in which you will directly enter music or video sequences. Software will interpret the content and compare it to millions of files on the Web, much as you do today for Web pages. You will discover new music and movies you didn¿t even know existed that have something in common to yours, and you will be able to access any kind of information about your tracks. The cultural impact of that would be immense. I also see a great potential for peer-to-peer. It¿s a wonderful system. If it is used to distribute contents legally, it will create new business opportunities.

SA: Are you a music lover?

LC: My preferences are broad, but I wouldn¿t say that I am an expert. I confess that my son is my mentor in this field.


Sergio Pistoi is a freelance science writer and a communications consultant based in Arezzo, Italy.
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