Digital Revolutionary: Interview with Leonardo Chiariglione

The father of MP3 recently established the Digital Media Project, which aims to formulate a new standard for digital audio and video. If things proceed according to plan, the media world will never be the same.

A tortuous, vineyard-lined road leads to the secluded house of Leonardo Chiariglione. In this rural village near Turin, Italy, only a few locals are aware that their neighborhood engineer is the mastermind behind the revolution that has brought MP3, DVD and digital television into the lives of millions. An electronics engineer and former vice president of multimedia at the corporate research laboratories of Italian Telecom, Chiariglione is founder and chair of the Moving Picture Experts Group (MPEG), which has established such ubiquitous digital multimedia formats as MP3 and MPEG-2.


Chiariglione would have good reason to rest on his laurels: in 1999 Time Digital ranked him among the top 50 innovators in the digital world, and his résumé lists an impressive series of awards, including an Emmy in 1996. Instead he has just called fellow experts to arms against "the stalemate" that he believes is crippling the development of digital media. Late last year Chiariglione established the Digital Media Project (DMP), a not-for-profit organization of individuals and companies--among them giants BT, Matsushita and Mitsubishi--with the ambitious goal of formulating a new standard for digital audio and video. If things proceed according to plan, the media world will never be the same.


Scientific met Chiariglione at his home (and DMP headquarters) to talk with him about this new endeavor and his vision for the future of digital media. An edited translation of that conversation follows below.


Scientific : Millions of people are using digital audio and video today. Why do you say that the dream of a digital revolution hasn't happened?


LC : Everyone expected that these technologies would bring huge benefits to everybody along the value chain. Creators would be given new ways to express themselves, end users would enjoy new kinds of experiences, and industries would find new opportunities for business. Ten years later, this is not happening. I don't see any industry that is really thriving on digital audio and video--at least not as much as they do in other sectors like consumer electronics or telecommunications. The music industry is the most dramatic example: it is still based on a physical support--the CD--that you buy, bring home and put inside a player like you did before with vinyl records or cassettes. The quality of sound is better, but the overall experience hasn't really changed. Technologies such as MP3 and the internet have opened the way to revolutionary digital experiences--and also to an unprecedented development of piracy. Record labels are reluctant to adopt any new technology that does not guarantee their copyrights and prefer to stick to their old business models. But if nothing changes, many users will continue to steal music. It's a stalemate in which everybody loses in the long run: industries miss new opportunities for business, and users will not benefit from future technological advances.


SA : How do you feel about the fact that MP3 is so often associated with music piracy?

LC : The culture of theft that turns around MP3 is detestable, and I'm very disappointed about that. But neither MP3 nor peer-to-peer [the technology behind Napster, by which Internet users share files directly from their computers] are monsters. They are terrific technologies for distributing content with an enormous potential for business, but they are pieces of an uncompleted puzzle. Digital copyright management is the missing piece that we need.