When Internet users started ripping off songs from the online Museum of Musical Instruments, they angered the wrong guy: millionaire mathematician Hank Risan.
Risan's unorthodox museum is a Web site devoted to guitars and their role in music history, reflecting his personal interests as a collector, restorer and musician. The original version of the site boasted a virtual jukebox with thousands of songs from various musical eras and genres.
Then, early last year, the Recording Industry Assn. of America called to complain that Risan's site was letting users play songs on demand without the record labels' permission -- a no-no under copyright law. Worse, visitors could copy songs with just a few clicks of a computer mouse.
Risan, who had used his computing skills to make a fortune in the financial markets in the 1970s, was mortified.
So he fought back.
He unplugged the site's music and, dipping into his sizable bank account, put together a team of 16 software engineers in Santa Cruz. After more than a year of research and development, his venture -- called Music Public Broadcasting -- has developed a set of products that it says can give record companies, Hollywood studios and other copyright owners unprecedented protection against piracy.
Risan's conversion from guitar collector to software peddler illustrates something important about the battle over online piracy: It's a fluid technological arms race, with innovations coming from unexpected places on both sides of the fight. Just as entrepreneurs around the globe exploit piracy to build their businesses, so too do clever programmers try to profit by developing ways to protect copyrighted works.
Naturally, other anti-piracy companies are skeptical about Music Public Broadcasting's claims, and it remains to be seen whether any of its products will make a dent in the piracy that's rampant on the Internet. The company has just started trying to sell its wares, and it has yet to announce any customers.
Risan's museum is expected to show off one piece of the technology next month when it launches an online radio service featuring songs from 160 different genres and time periods. The music will be transmitted in a manner that Risan says will defy digital recording on today's computers, something that the leading vendors of anti-piracy software haven't been able to do for other services.
The company also has been demonstrating products designed to deter copying of CDs and DVDs, promote file sharing without piracy and beef up existing protections on the labels' downloadable songs.
Many executives at the major record and movie companies say that though they're eager to use the Internet to distribute their works, they're daunted by the risk of piracy. They have kept pressing technology suppliers such as Microsoft Corp., Macrovision Corp. and RealNetworks Inc. for tools that are not only more effective but also more flexible.
Music Public Broadcasting is trying to capitalize on that demand.
"I was shocked at how easy it was to strip [electronic locks] off of copyrighted material," Risan said. Although many people have told him that piracy can't be stopped with software alone, he said, "That, to me, [says] Aha! I have a new challenge in life."
As he tells it, Risan's personal history is replete with self-imposed challenges and you're-not-going-to-believe-this experiences.
Risan (pronounced rih-ZAHN) says his fascination with music began when he was a toddler, sitting under the piano bench at his San Fernando Valley home while his mother played classical music and jazz. At age 15 he became an apprentice to a guitar maker in Los Angeles, who taught him how to build and repair instruments, and by 17 he'd started rounding up vintage Martin six-strings.
He also was a mathematical prodigy, drawn in particular to topology -- a sophisticated approach to characterizing and understanding shapes in multi-dimensional space. This interest spilled over into biology in the mid-1970s while Risan was an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, where he studied such things as the topology of hemoglobin.
"He was among the most brilliant students that I ever had as an undergraduate," said Leo Ortiz, chairman of the university's ecology and evolutionary biology department. "He never ran out of gas."
Risan learned to use mainframe computers to power his research in math and biology, which he continued while seeking doctorates simultaneously at Santa Cruz and UC Berkeley. But a brief stint at the London School of Economics in the late 1970s prompted him to apply his computing skills in another arena: finding and capitalizing on patterns in financial markets.
Risan said he made and lost millions of dollars trading securities. He was 30 and comfortably in the black when he was severely injured while training for a bicycle race, which got him to slow down -- briefly -- and shift gears. He became a dealer in rare musical instruments, collecting, restoring and selling 19th and 20th century guitars.
The move paid off handsomely, as Risan proved adept at selling instruments at premium prices.
"He is a very flamboyant guy, and he does things with a level of style that I don't think is duplicated in the fretted-instrument industry," said Stanley Jay, president of Mandolin Bros. Ltd., another elite dealer of stringed instruments. "In this industry, to make yourself stand apart, you need to be self-promotional. And he does that extremely well."
Risan said the inspiration for the Museum of Musical Instruments was his desire to catalog and share his personal collection, which has grown to about 750 instruments, most of them guitars. The virtual galleries include photographs and essays about dozens of guitars, about 75% of which come from Risan's collection.
After launching the museum three years ago, Risan hired a company in Scotts Valley, Calif., to add a virtual jukebox to the site. "The system that was put in place, I was assured, was secure," he said.
He assumed the jukebox's songs couldn't be copied digitally because they were "streamed" to users, meaning that they arrived in small pieces that weren't meant to be stored on the computer. Those pieces also could be scrambled as they were transmitted from the Web site.
But as piracy experts are fond of saying, anything that can be played on a computer can be recorded, regardless of how it's protected. Encrypted streams and downloads must be unscrambled to be heard on a computer's speakers or shown on its screen. And there are several programs that can intercept music or video on its way to the speakers or screen after it's been unscrambled.
Microsoft tried to address the problem with a technology known as Secure Audio Path, which it built into two recent versions of the Windows software that runs personal computers. This technology is designed to stop an unscrambled audio file from going anywhere on a computer other than its speakers.
The main drawback is that only computers with Windows XP or Me can receive music that uses the Secure Audio Path technology. That's why none of the online music services are using it -- they don't want to exclude the large part of their audience that uses Windows 98 and earlier programs.
Theory Into Practice
Risan drew on his mathematical skills to come up with a different approach to the problem of unauthorized recording. Drawing on a branch of topology known as network theory, Risan said he could look at the networks a computer uses to move data internally and "visualize how to protect the copyrighted material as it transfers through those networks."
The firm claims that its technology controls those pathways, letting copyright owners dictate what can and can't be copied. "We control pathways that don't even exist yet," Risan said.
Music Public Broadcasting uses the same basic approach to prevent CDs and DVDs from being copied, protect downloadable songs from piracy and deter music and movies from being copied through file-sharing networks without the copyright owners being compensated. In order for it to work, though, the company must put software in users' computers to control those internal networks. Risan acknowledged that consumers won't accept such controls unless they're allowed a reasonable amount of freedom, but he said his technology can strike that balance.
The company, which has spent millions of dollars on development, hopes to license its technology to online music and video services, record companies and movie studios. It also will try to persuade consumers to pay $10 to $12 a month for the new radio service, or twice as much as other services that don't let users request specific songs. Risan said the radio transmissions would use much less digital compression than competitors do, raising the company's costs but delivering better sound quality.
Russell G. Weiss, an attorney at Morrison & Foerster who represents Music Public Broadcasting, said the company also has asked the RIAA for a discount on the royalties the radio service pays to record labels and artists because of the extra protection it provides against copying. If it succeeds, Weiss said, that could prod other Webcasters to license Music Public Broadcasting's technology and seek the same discount.
Zach Zalon of Radio Free Virgin, the online radio arm of Virgin Group, said he would love to license technology that prevented his stations' Webcasts from being recorded by "stream ripping" programs. Stream rippers break through every anti-piracy program on the market, Zalon said, "so if you could somehow defeat that, it's fantastic."
An executive at a major record company who's seen the technology for protecting streams and CDs said he was impressed, although he's not sure the demonstration can be duplicated in the real world. "If it's not snake oil, it's pretty awesome," he said.
Lawrence Kenswil, president of Universal Music Group's ELabs, said the labels' goal isn't to come up with a perfect defense against piracy, just one that's hard for the average person to defeat. "The question is, would the typical consumer bother to defeat it, not whether it's defeatable."