Universal DRM may block PCs from playing CDs

In an effort to protect its copyright material for digital distribution, Universal Music Group Inc. is preparing to incorporate technology that may keep consumers from playing their legally bought CDs over their PCs at work or at home as soon as next month.

The digital rights management (DRM) technology that Universal Music Group is most closely considering is called Cactus Data Shield, from the Israeli company Midbar Tech Ltd., according to a source close to Universal.

The technology would be used to scramble the data on an audio CD so that CD and DVD drives used by PCs can't play them. The technology is expected to be applied to at least one new CD release from Universal before the end of the year, with production to be ramped up after that, the source said.

Consumer-advocate campaigners, such as U.K.-based Campaign for Digital Rights, are concerned that it is simply a matter of time before the major music companies use such technology as a matter of course to keep consumers from playing legally bought CDs over their PCs at work or at home. Music companies may do so, the consumer advocates say, without warning consumers or lowering the price of a CD that some users may find less useful.

Universal's decision regarding copy-protected CDs comes on the heels of Sony Corp.'s acknowledgment in September that it had incorporated its copy-protection software, key2audio, in promotional CD copies of the Michael Jackson single "You Rock My World," making it impossible for radio producers to play the CD on PC CD-ROMs or to re-record the single.

Sony contended it has no plans to use similar technology on commercial releases of the record, but did leave the door open for key2audio's use in the future.

Universal's technology would be very similar to key2audio technology developed by Sony Corp. in that it would keep audio CDs from being played on standard CD/DVD-ROM, CD-R and CD-RW drives, and therefore make those CDs unplayable on PCs, including computers from Apple Computer Inc., according to the source close to Universal.

Universal Music Group is owned by Vivendi Universal SA, which in its report on third-quarter financial results Tuesday revealed the company's plans for digital-content protection.

"Universal Music Group has been undergoing extensive exploration and technical evaluation of a variety of technologies designed to prevent the growing problem of CD copying and duplication. UMG will be implementing copy protection on a number of releases starting in the fourth quarter 2001," Vivendi said in its statement.

"We haven't made any formal announcement about what technologies we will be using. We should be announcing that in the next few of weeks but at this point, we haven't really decided yet on which technology to use and we have a number (of DRM technologies) in development," Grace Salafia, a Universal spokeswoman, told the IDG News Service.

According to the source, there is still some wrangling going on over the final decision to issue copy-protected CDs, with a "pretty big faction" within Universal strongly arguing that the technology should be dropped, in no small part because they believe it will be cracked immediately. But despite such concerns, "the word is coming from the top of the company," to proceed with copy-protected CDs and to do it soon, the source said.

The Cactus Data Shield is somewhat different from Sony's key2audio technology in that it includes proprietary electronic circuits and software algorithms for encoding digital content, which slightly alters the information on the CD in "several ways while maintaining perfect audio quality," according to Midbar Tech's Web site.

Sony, through its Sony DADC division, developed the key2audio technology, which according to the Sony DADC Web site works by applying several hidden signatures outside the music data area during the CD production process. These hidden signatures work like unique fingerprints and prevent CD-R/RW burners or professional production systems from making unauthorized copies.

Along with consumers of audio CDs, large software makers like Microsoft Corp. and RealNetworks Inc. could also be caught out when the copy-protected CDs hit the market. Both of the new multimedia players from Microsoft and RealNetworks, the Windows Media Player and the RealOne Media Player respectively, have features that let PC users play and organize tracks from audio CDs.

The copy-protected CDs from Universal and Sony would render those highly touted features useless on both media players, something the companies are all too aware of. "It is a tricky situation. What I can say is that we working with (the major music labels), and are trying to educate them about offering customers the flexibility they want while also protecting (the company's) copyrights at the same time," said George Fraser, RealNetworks' director for Northern Europe.

The copy-protected CDs are also potentially an issue for subscription digital music service Pressplay, the joint venture between Vivendi Universal and Sony Music Entertainment Inc. that is expected to launch by December.

To avoid short-circuiting its new digital music service, the source said, Universal is considering creating audio files especially for Pressplay. These files would use a DRM scheme that would allow Pressplay subscribers to download and play them on PC drives.

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