You can rip, copy, or play an MP3 file, but one thing you can't do is get more than two channels of sound out of it. Soon, you will be able to, although you may have more trouble copying the file. The Fraunhofer Institute, originator of the file format that brought the music industry to its knees, is adding surround sound and copyright protection.
Expected this summer, the MP3 Surround format is based on Agere Systems' technology. "What we do is take the original surround-sound signal," explains Peter Kroon, Agere's chief multimedia architect, "and we down-mix that from 5.1 channels to stereo." Rather than capturing all the additional channel information, however, the encoding uses psychoacoustic techniques to capture only spatial and speed information for additional channels, thus preserving compact file size. The MP3 Surround files are backward-compatible, so they play back as stereo tracks on existing players; updated hardware and software will play the files back as surround sound for 5.1 speakers.
The Fraunhofer Institute is also adding copyright protection. Dubbed Light Weight Digital Rights Management (LWDRM), when added to MP3 files it allows copying files, provided the user is willing to mark files with a digital signature—and register it. So when a file appears on Kazaa, the culprit could be swiftly found. Some will surely contend, though, that the whole appeal of MP3 files has been their flexibility—and lack of restrictions.