Labels try to thwart piracy at the source
Todd Pack | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted August 6, 2001
Record labels, concerned that people won't buy music online if they can download bootleg copies for free, are looking for ways to stop piracy at the source: compact discs.
Practically every song that can be snagged from Napster or another file-sharing service was originally copied, or "ripped," from an ordinary CD. The process takes only seconds, and thanks to digital technology, it produces a copy -- on another CD or a computer hard drive -- that's about as good as the original.
BMG Entertainment, the world's No. 2 record label, signed a deal last week to produce at least some CDs for sale using an anti-piracy technology called MediaCloQ (pronounced "media cloak"). BMG's artist lineup includes Christina Aguilera, Whitney Houston and Elvis Presley.
Stop people from ripping CDs, the labels say, and you'll do a lot to stop piracy.
But others argue it isn't as simple as that.
If the industry isn't careful, some experts say, it could make things difficult for honest consumers without doing anything to stop the bootleggers.
"Consumers and labels are at war," said Lee Black, director of research at Webnoize Inc., a digital-entertainment consulting firm in Cambridge, Mass.
With the major labels planning to launch online music-subscription services by late summer or early fall, stopping piracy at the source "is going to be very important to them," Black said.
But "consumers are going to want the widest degree of flexibility possible," he added. "They'll want to move that content around to other devices they own," such as their personal computers, recordable CDs and portable MP3 players.
Violation of your rights?
The problem is, the same technology that makes it more difficult to pirate songs may make it impossible for paying customers to play CDs on their personal computers or even on some older CD players.
It also could make it difficult for consumers to compile their favorite tunes on a single CD for their personal use -- a "right" some people argue is guaranteed by a 9-year-old federal law.
For instance, if you buy a CD protected by MediaCloQ, "you will not be able to rip music, and you will not be able to play that CD in your computer, either," said Bill Whitmore Jr., marketing vice president for Phoenix-based SunnComm Inc., which developed the system.
Such restrictions could end up hurting, rather than helping, CD sales -- especially among students, who were among the first to latch on to Napster, a file-sharing service that rattled and revolutionized the music industry.
PCs and laptops have largely replaced CD players and "boom boxes" on college campuses, analysts say. So students who can't get commercial CDs to play in their machines could end up downloading more pirated music files instead.
Such consequences are particularly troublesome considering that the preventive measures may be for naught, said Phil Leigh, a digital-media analyst with Raymond James & Associates in St. Petersburg.
No matter what precautions the major music labels take to prevent people from ripping CDs or even playing them on PCs, determined hackers can find a way around them, Leigh said.
Labels must walk fine line
In fact, saving copy-protected CD songs on a PC's hard drive is about as simple as dubbing an album onto a cassette tape, he said. As with the taped copy, the quality of the PC copy won't be perfect, Leigh said, but it's probably good enough for bootleggers and casual listeners.
Rather than making anti-piracy schemes foolproof, he said, the labels should make illegal copying just difficult enough -- and make their subscription services just cheap enough -- so piracy is no longer worth the trouble. Subscriptions are expected to cost about $10 a month, though some analysts are already saying that may be too expensive.
Leigh said he understands the labels' desire to stop unauthorized copying completely, but "attempts to control the consumer simply aren't going to work."
Not that the labels won't try.
SunnComm's system, for example, prevents PCs from reading a copy-protected CD, but it can allow the CD's owner to download the same music from a special Web site -- also in a copy-protected form -- for replay only on the computer.
Eventually, the company will give labels the option of letting CD purchasers copy songs onto a second CD, though that copy couldn't be copied again or shared online.
Other methods in the works
SunnComm isn't the only company working on a way to stop or discourage people from copying compact discs. Macrovision Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif., has developed technology that inserts annoying "clicks" and "pops" onto ripped song files.
Such restrictions raise questions about a consumer's fair-use rights to copyrighted material.
Under the Audio Home Recording Act, passed in 1992, copyright holders can't sue people who make copies for personal use. But that doesn't apply to copies made on PCs or onto blank CDs, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, a Washington trade group.
Digital audiotape and minidisc devices are covered under the statute because those manufacturers are required to pay a royalty to artists and record companies, and must try to prevent users from making copies of copies, the group said.
Because the makers of general-use devices such as PCs and CD "burners" aren't obliged to follow either of those rules, those devices aren't covered by the law, the industry group argues.
Besides, Whitmore said, nothing in the law says labels have to make copying easy.
"When you buy music," he said, "you buy the right to listen to that music, not to give it away."