News feature: Music labels target CD ripping

Teen pop band 'N Sync may feature vocal harmony, but at least some copies of its latest CD aren't in sync with your PC--in fact, they are incompatible, thanks to tough new copy protection.

The band's label, Jive Records, has implemented the technology to prevent you from playing the "Celebrity" CD on your PC. That also means no burning or ripping tracks so you can listen to "Celebrity" on your portable MP3 player. The move is an example of a get-tough trend being adopted by record labels that say they are losing profits to digital music pirates.

The five major record labels are warming to the idea of putting copy protection on audio CDs to thwart what they claim is rampant pirating of their music. BMG Entertainment Inc., Sony Music Entertainment Inc., and Universal Music Group Inc. confirm they're testing the concept by installing copy-protection software on a number of sample and promotional CDs.

Jive is among the smaller labels already selling at least some copy-protected CDs to consumers. Besides representing 'N Sync, Jive Records handles Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys. With its "Celebrity" CD release, 'N Sync is one of the first well-known acts to adopt copy protection--found on a disc PC World purchased in Boston.

BMG distributes music for Jive Records and owns 20 percent of the independent label. Jive's parent company Zomba Recording, which claims to be the world's largest independent music company, declines any comment. A representative wouldn't say how widely the label has implemented copy protection, or discuss its policies or plans at all.

Copy control cops

Labels are reluctant to talk about their copy protection plans for fear consumers will be annoyed with any new restrictions. However, they're already experimenting with copy-protection technology.

Vivendi Universal says its Universal Music Group will this year start issuing CDs containing software that prevents the music from being digitally copied into computer files. BMG says it is currently testing SunnComm's CD copy protection.

Sony says it continues to test available copy protection technologies, and that its goal is to "implement copy protection on a broader basis to deter digital piracy." Sony caused a stir when it released a promotional Michael Jackson CD single, "You Rock My World," that could not be read by Windows PCs.

"We are in the research and development stage," says Nathaniel Brown, a BMG spokesperson, of that label's plans. Warner Music Group likewise says it is testing the copy-protection waters, but has no immediate plans to market copy-protected CDs.

"We are concerned with CD copying in PCs," says Will Tanous, vice president of communications at Warner Music Group. "We are evaluating the implications to our business."

Because the labels aren't forthcoming about their intentions, the way to determine how much copy-protected music is out there is through the companies that provide such technology. And they say the numbers are mounting.

Already, about 200,000 CD releases in Europe and the United States use Macrovision's SafeAudio technology, according to Brian McPhail, vice president of Macrovision's consumer software division. Another copy control firm, SunnComm, reports its MediaCloQ copy protection is on about 50,000 CDs being sold by small record labels in the United States.

Macrovision and SunnComm expect their copy protection schemes will be on millions of CDs next year.

Turning to court

Technical issues and hacker workarounds aside, it's highly likely consumers will find copy protection an annoyance.

Already one lawsuit has been filed by a California woman, who claims copy protection constitutes an unfair business practice. She contends the technology on the "Charley Pride: A Tribute to Jim Reeves" CD that she purchased unfairly prevents her from playing it on a PC and copying it.

Attorney Ira Rothken, acting on behalf of Karen DeLise and California's general public, filed suit in a California Superior Court in September. The suit names Fahrenheit Entertainment, its label Music City Records, and SunnComm, provider of the copy-protection technology MediaCloQ as defendants.

DeLise, who purchased the CD, could download encrypted digital copies of songs only by first connecting to the SunnComm Web site with the original CD in her PC's drive. Online, she had to supply SunnComm with her name, address, and e-mail address. The digital song files she retrieved could be played only on the PC that downloaded the music. DeLise's suit also alleges privacy intrusion because she had to divulge personal information to download her digital music files.

"We intended to use e-mail addresses to notify fans when Charley Pride went on tour and when new music was available," says Bob Heatherly, president and chief executive officer of Music City Records.

He says Music City Records and SunnComm have no intention of selling or sharing personal information to a third party. "One of the last things you want to do is annoy the customer," Heatherly says.

But attorney Rothken says many buyers will be annoyed. "This case is more about seeking a precedent on the behalf of the general public than about any harm done to my client," Rothken says. He contends record labels should give reasonable notice to the consumer about "functionally inferior CDs" so the consumer can then make an informed choice whether to purchase the CD.

Heatherly says the Charley Pride CD carries a disclaimer: "This audio CD is protected by SunnComm MediaCloQ Ver 1.0. It is designed to play in standard audio CD players only and is not intended for use in DVD players. Licensed copies of all music on this CD are available for downloading. Simply insert CD into your computer to begin."

Rothken says the warning is insufficient because it doesn't tell customers they will have to divulge personal information in order to download the additional tracks.

On 'N Sync 's "Celebrity" CD, a similar disclaimer is on the back of the CD in the lower-right hand corner. In small type it reads: "This CD is not playable on computers."

Fair versus legal

At issue are matters of fair use versus consumer expectations, says Lee Black, director of research at Webnoize, an industry research firm. "Most labels know consumers expect to be able to turn their CDs into MP3s. But labels don't agree that is a consumer's right."

In the United States, under the 1976 doctrine of Fair Use, the owner of a copyright work is allowed to copy that work for personal use. But laws and protocols were written before Napster and digital music piracy exploded in popularity.

To accommodate fair use, music labels are considering technology that would fill customer desires for digital tunes but retain copyright protection. One compromise plan would equip new discs with both pre-ripped tracks and with CD-quality music. The PC-friendly music files would be subject to digital rights management rules, which give record labels control over how many devices can play those audio tracks. In some cases, you could play those digital tracks only on portable digital audio players that support a label's particular DRM system.

Some digital music subscription services are also considering implementing DRM (digital rights management) technology. Pressplay, a joint venture of Vivendi and Sony, has said it will use Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format and DRM technology for all music it distributes.

Technology With teeth

The protection technology itself employs several different techniques. Macrovision's SafeAudio technology works by inserting small distortions into audio CDs that standard CD players filter out with noise reduction technology. CD-ROM and DVD-ROM drives aren't equipped to block SafeAudio's distortions, which means that if you try to play, rip, or burn the audio CD using your PC, the music tracks hiss and pop.

But the technology isn't flawless. When BMG tested MidBar's secure CD technology in Germany earlier this year, up to 4 percent of the 130,000 copy-protected CDs sold were returned because consumers said the CDs wouldn't play properly in normal audio CD players.

Another copy protection technique is to "hide" a CD's table of contents so your CD-ROM drive can't read it. When you put 'N Sync's Celebrity CD into a CD-ROM drive, for example, a Windows message pops up: "Disk is not formatted."

History has shown that hackers are creative about finding ways to bypass copy protection; methods of cracking common copy protection and DRM schemes are already available on the Net.

"There is always going to be someone who walks around with bolt cutters," says William Whitmore, vice president of marketing and communications at SunnComm. "There are always going to be some that can get in your house no matter the lock."

But real wild card that will ultimately determine the success of copy protection is the consumer. An aggressive anti-piracy strategy could backfire and alienate consumers. "No [music label] wants to be the first," says Webnoize's Black. "But nobody wants to be the last."

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