Sony's CD promo sparks new round in copy-protection war

The large music labels are continuing their fight against pirated digital music -- a fight that in the near future may keep consumers from playing their legally bought CDs over their PCs at work or at home.

In the latest wrinkle in the ongoing debate about how to manage copyrights for digital content, Sony Corp. Tuesday confirmed that it had incorporated copy-protection software in promotional CD copies of the Michael Jackson single "You Rock My World." This made it impossible for radio producers to play the CD on PC CD-ROMs or to rerecord the single.

"Promotional copies of Michael Jackson's single that were sent to radio stations last month, were copy-protected using the key2audio technology -- one of several being tested at the moment. There are no plans currently to use similar technology on commercial releases of this record," said Sony Music Entertainment U.K. in an e-mail response to questions from the IDG News Service.

Sony declined to offer any further comment and would not indicate if it had made radio stations aware of the fact that the CD was copy-protected.

"We found out about this last Friday when a BBC (British Broadcast Corp.) producer and sound engineer contacted us," said Julian Midgley of the U.K. group, Campaign for Digital Rights.

"The music industry has started releasing copy-controlled CDs -- usually without warning the public that the CD they purchase can't be copied to their portable MP3 players, or car MP3 jukeboxes, or in some cases, won't even play in a computer CD player at all. The prime concern of the U.K. Campaign for Digital Rights, as regards CD Copy Protection, is that these CDs are being released at the usual prices without any warning that they are considerably less useful to the purchaser," Midgley said. Laws that are about to be enacted in the European Union also will make it illegal for users to circumvent copy protection schemes, he noted.

According to the BBC producer who had contacted the Campaign for Digital Rights, who asked not to be named, it is standard practice for radio stations, including the BBC, to copy tracks from CDs onto computers so as to make it easier for the producer to switch between a live DJ and a music track.

In this case, the CD single appeared to be unreadable by Microsoft Corp.'s Windows PCs for when it was loaded into the CD drive, "the disc spun continuously as though the drive was trying to access the table of contents of a blank or corrupted CD-R (CD-recordable) disc," the BBC producer said in an e-mail sent to the IDG News Service.

The CD was then tried out in several different machines, including two PCs from Hewlett-Packard Co., two PCs from Compaq Computer Corp. and one from Dell Computer Corp. -- all running several versions of Windows, he said.

"Usually Windows Explorer came back with 'cannot access D:/,' although the Dell managed to read the disc once. However it still wouldn't play, and the computer registered five tracks, rather than the three on the single. None of our stand-alone professional or domestic CD players had a problem with the disc. In the end we had to make an analogue copy, but even then one of the tracks couldn't be ripped into the CD (although the PC allowed us to play the whole thing as a normal disc, which hadn't been the case with the original)," the BBC producer said.

Sony, through its Sony DADC division, has 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.

"Audio discs protected with the current version cannot be recognized by standard CD/DVD-ROM, CD-R and CD-RW drives, thus they do not play on PC, Apple Macintosh or other systems equipped with CD-ROM, CD-R, CD-RW, DVD-ROM and DVD-R devices. This ensures the highest efficiency currently available. Due to the fact that key2audio protected discs do not play on PC, no ripping is possible," the Sony Web site states.

Though Sony won't be using its key2audio technology on the consumer version of the Michael Jackson CD, it did leave the door open for the use of key2audio or similar technologies on future commercially released CDs. "As responsible copyright holders, Sony Music Entertainment has long been a strong proponent of protecting its artists and copyrights from piracy. We continue to test available copy-protection technologies, and our goal is to implement copy protection on a broader basis to deter digital piracy," Sony said in its e-mail.

Sony's Michael Jackson promotional CD is not the first case of a CD being copy-protected. In May, Music City Records Inc. released ``Charley Pride -- A Tribute to Jim Reeves;" what it called the first "Napster-proof" or "cloaked'' audio CD.

Using MediaCloQ protection technology from SunnComm Inc., buyers of the CD are required to register the disc before they download it to their computers. Unless the CD is registered it cannot be downloaded into the PC. Music City Records contends the technology has performed as promised in restricting the CD's "copy-ability" and that it will continue to use MediaCloQ in future releases.

Though Music City Records insists that its "cloaked'' audio CD is being very well received by the consumer, Midgley is concerned that consumers are not getting what they are paying for.

Last week, Sanyo Electric Co. Ltd. announced it has also developed a new technology to prevent the copying of CD-ROM discs onto CD-R discs. When users try to copy a CD using the protection technology, a hidden file consisting of data that causes errors is read and prevents illegal copying, Sanyo said.

Whereas programmers have found ways around the systems and developed software patches that enable users to bypass any protection, Sanyo said it was trying a variety of methods to keep its copy-protected technology from failing. For example, its error-causing file will be hidden on discs at the pressing stage while the size and the location of this hidden file may be varied for each master disc.

In July, Roxio Inc., which makes the Easy CD Creator software program, announced its plans to integrate digital rights management (DRM) encryption/decryption code into future versions of its CD burning software.

As part of a partnership between Roxio and EMI Recorded Music Ltd., upon payment of a fee, users of the new software will be able to download copy-protected songs from EMI's Web site and burn them onto CDs, though the companies haven't yet decided how many copies a consumer will be allowed to burn. Roxio says it's discussing similar arrangements with other major record labels.

But according to Harm Meyer, sales director for Roxio, the company does not intend to make those discs unplayable on PC CD-ROMs. "We are still developing the technology with EMI to make it ready for launch next year. But it should not restrict anyone from playing it on their home CD-ROM," Meyer said in a telephone interview Tuesday.

As the Campaign for Digital Rights' Midgley points out, within the next few months there will be more than a simple inconvenience factor for European users who try and copy CDs they buy for the purposes of playing on their home and work computers, car CD players and MP3 players.

"Once the European Copyright Directive is enacted, it will become variously a criminal or civil offense to circumvent such copy control mechanisms, even if you are doing so for previously legitimate purposes," Midgley said.

Germany is in the process of enacting the directive while the U.K. is expected to implement it within the next 14 months, Midgley said.

"By the end of next year, it will become an offense to take the steps the BBC sound engineer had to take to copy the Jackson CD to the computer so that it could be played on the show," Midgley said.

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