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Big Blue is one of the oldest players in the so-called digital rights management business, in which companies create software to block or deter would-be pirates from downloading music online without permission. A 1999 test conducted with most of the major record companies led many analysts to put IBM in a leading role
The advent of Napster and its peers has changed the rules and risks in the online music business. Now IBM and other companies are trying to keep just enough of the Napster model alive to satisfy consumers, while giving copyright holders near-absolute control over the way songs and other media are distributed.
The model sounds much like what the record companies have been asking for. Analysts say the innovation gives IBM a new leg up in the content-lockup business, but that nothing is settled.
"It's all up in the air," said Alan Weintraub, a Gartner analyst who follows the industry closely. The record companies "are looking at what to do, playing around with different technologies."
As fast as companies try to protect music or other media from hackers and crackers, the underground tends to find a way to break or evade the protections.
It's partly for that reason that the big content companies have yet to settle on a standard. Most of the record companies have announced trials with versions of the several dozen types of copy protection on the market, but none has achieved anything like dominance.
The music and publishing companies also have to persuade consumers that buying songs or books with built-in limitations on sharing and copying even for personal use is a good idea. A backlash among free speech advocates has already begun, with critics arguing that the record companies are trying to expand their copyrights beyond what is already allowed by law.
Most of the debate is still in the theoretical stage; however, since few companies are distributing music that is protected, few devices are made that can read the protections, and a vast library of music is still available on Napster without any protection at all.
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Meta Group says that while digital copyright protection is important to all creative artists and owners of intellectual property, security must be balanced by the need to avoid causing frustration for legitimate customers.