Alphabetical Notes On Format Ownership, Two Types Of Digital Apparatus And The Big Bitrate Merger

by Micz Flor | net.congestion reader | September 2000

The discussion about copyright issues today is mainly concerned with intellectual property and breaking the stronghold of the multi-national music industries. The Internet opens the global stage to small, independent producers, who are generally faster, more flexible and innovative in utilising existing possibilities. From above, the current scenario presents a diversification of the existing distribution channels. However, looking at the scenario from the other end, we experience a process of centralisation. This centralisation refers to the compression formats which are being used in the Internet.

Both processes work hand in hand. If it wasn’t for universally applicable compression formats (codecs such as MP3), there wouldn’t be such a diverse network of exchange. Broadening the copyright discussion: the issue of ownership is not only crucial but also in the field of intellectual property, the essential question, the development, the change we are experiencing will eventually mean: who owns the key to cross-codec-compatibility - or - who owns the format.

We are currently inhabiting a small vacuum with anarchic qualities which came out of the sequential steps: digitising formats, applying compression, streaming online, overcoming bandwidth restriction. The results are the current (and necessary) discussions around intellectual property - a second wave of ‘information wants to be free’. However, freedom would imply not only the content, but also the format.

Glossary A: Digitising Formats - The Interchanging Universe

Almost all formats have been successfully digitised over the past 20 years. If you own a portable MP3 player today, you might be surprised to hear that you can easily store text documents, even software on this device. As long as it is digital, you can squeeze as much info on there as your smart card or memory stick allows you to. This makes the MP3 player the perfect gadget to physically move critical data from one place to another, as the player will only play MP3 formats, and therefore leave everything else safe and undetected.

Once understood, the digital nature of all formats divides all digital devices into two categories: the hard disks and the working memories. Your MP3 player is a working memory device, your DV-cam from the hard disk side of beings. A miniDV tape is a huge and slightly awkward external hard disk. A smart card is working memory, just like the memory stick - or your fashionable Casio watch which records 20 seconds of audio.

True, every digital apparatus has a specific purpose like recording movies or sound or still images. You should understand this as a minor I/O peculiarity. Precisely what kind of data your hard disk or working memory device registers is secondary, it is merely in the nature of the A/D converter (digitising the analogue source; like audio, video, etc.).

Glossary B: Compression Formats - Bringing Time Based Media Online

Once digitised, we can move the data from one storage system to another, without loosing quality, without many problems. Not many, but one remaining problem; time. The time it takes to get digital sound or video from A to B, let’s say from CD to hard disk, or from Kiev to Stuttgart. The quality of digital material in its purest shape depends on the size of the file we create. The smaller, the poorer the quality - and the longer the transfer.

To allow smaller file sizes, another process is normally applied to digitised information, the compression codec. Compression is a mathematical exercise which converts data into a smaller version of itself, discarding information on the way. Again, the amount of compression applied will eventually lead to a decrease in quality. This can be seen in image compression such as Video-CDs, even the much higher DVD quality sometimes has visible limitations.

The first generation of compression was mostly mathematical. Only later did developers discover the psychological framework within which compression can become more efficient. MP3 is a commonly known compression codec which is also based on the psychology of hearing. Today, compression codecs are used by almost all digital formats. DV-cams and MP3 players for example use codecs, namely DV and MP3. Any audio or video stream (called time based media) relies on a codec which allows to transfer enough information per second to keep the stream fluid without interruption. This means of measurement is called bitrate and crucial to all online activities. Keeping the bitrate low means delivering poor quality, but at a rate which can be squeezed through a modem: streaming media. Glossary C: Bandwidth Restriction - Do The Real-Time

As compression rate for time based media is measured in kilobit per second (kBit/sec), so is modem speed. If you own a 56k modem, that means you can receive or send 56 kilobit per second of data (in an ideal world). Comparing compression and bandwidth we have two opposing developments. Here we see smarter codecs meaning better quality at a lower bitrate, there we see higher bandwidth meaning faster access and a higher bitrate. Put the two together and the next level of Internet is literally around the corner.

An example: downloading MP3 files you want good quality, meaning 96 kBit compression (referred to as near-CD quality) or even 128 kBit (labelled CD-quality). Simple maths: if your connectivity succeeds the compression rate, you can listen in real-time as you download. And with a Dual-ISDN connection (128 kBit pipeline from the Internet right to your hard disk) you can stream 96kBit MP3 files. In other words: a sharp distinction between downloading and streaming does not make sense for time-based media.

As the bandwidth goes up and better compression gets the bitrate down, we arrive at a point where downloading takes less time than playing the media file. More and more media players become streaming tools, not because they built specific and new streaming formats, but simply because they start playback while downloading.

Appendix I: The Glass Ceiling - Not Too Slow, Not Too Big, But Not Compatible

The big merger: where bitrates for compression and bandwidth shake hands, the digitised world is literally available at the click of a button - and not at the end of a laborious downloading and unstuffing process. Many copyright protection lobbyists seem to be aiming too low. Tied up in the nature of copyright - inherently linked to the issues of hard copies and ownership - copyright discussions often seem to be leaving the general development towards streaming media to another legal battlefield. This distinction - as most of the copyright issues - relate to the pre-digital age, to older formats and means of distribution. On one hand the hard copy (CD, vinyl, video tape) on the other hand the real-time distribution, mainly radio and TV.

This distinction has become superfluous, as bandwidth and compression merge. The question still: whose format is it? This becomes even more of an issue, as currently all digital devices go online. SONY recently put out a press release, stating that all (sic!) new equipment will be capable of accessing the Internet. More importantly, this means all equipment will be using standardised modes of communication, namely TCP/IP. When being capable of networking all digital apparatus there will be, there has to be one universal format for content compression, something similar to the TCP/IP protocol; the cross-codec-compatibility.

Appendix II: Cross-Codec-Compatibility - All In One And One For All

The real battle to shape and underlie this new phase of the Internet will be the ownership of such a universal codec. Despite the current criticism of legislation to serve the interests of the industry, the establishment of such a universal codec might be the real demarcation line for governmental regulations to position themselves on the side of public interest or the private industries.

As long as such a universal codec remains public domain, there is little to say against multinational industries using it for their purposes, expanding their existing distribution system. If, however, such a codec is private property it will implicitly make all recordings, all replays, all copies on all devices dependent on one company. The battles of The People versus Microsoft or similar quarrels amongst Apple, Sun and the like are minute in comparison. Such a development would put copyright lobbyists out of work, it would mean the replacement of many copyrights with one underlying copyright.

Chances are…