What if everything was watermarked?

According to a piece at Wired, now that digital-rights management seems to be going the way of the dodo, some labels are thinking about watermarking as a replacement. The piece contains this not-totally-comforting comment about the current watermarking process:

“At its most precise, a watermark could encode a unique serial number that a music company could match to the original purchaser. So far, though, labels say they won’t do that… Sony’s and Universal’s DRM-free lineups contain ‘anonymous’ watermarks that won’t trace to an individual.”

So, there you have it. The industry could trace specific tracks to you, but they promise they won’t do that. Reassuring, isn’t it? I’m sure at one point Sony would have promised that it would never install a Trojan virus or back-door rootkit on your computer when you bought one of the company’s CDs too, and we know how that turned out.

I’m trying to imagine a world in which every piece of content was watermarked in some way. What would happen to mashups? How would it affect the principle of fair use? Would Internet service providers start to block specific activity on the Web based on whether a watermark was detected? And would the DMCA-driven “take it down first and ask questions later” policy extend to virtually every kind of content?

Just this afternoon I was listening to The Ongoing History of New Music on 102.1, and host Alan Cross was talking about the “Amen break” — a legendary drum riff that appeared in a song by The Winstons in 1969 and then started showing up in rap and hip-hop samples in the 1980s, and has since appeared in dozens of popular hits.

What would have happened if GC Coleman (the drummer) or Richard Spencer — the composer who holds the rights to the song, and is now a high-school social studies teacher — had a watermark on that sample? Would they have become rich, or would hip-hop have come up with a different sound? Would all the bands that used part of the track have been sued? Would anyone care? I wonder.


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