Sony: Downbeat for a new online music battle
By Laura Rohde
(IDG) -- The battle over online music could soon be hitting consumers at home. Large music companies are still fighting to prevent pirated copies of their songs from appearing online -- and the latest move could prevent consumers from playing their legally bought CDs on their PCs.
On Tuesday, Sony 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, and brings up a variety of legal and technical issues for consumers and professionals in the music business.
"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," Sony Music Entertainment U.K. says.
Sony declines 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 producer and sound engineer contacted us," says Julian Midgley of United Kingdom-based 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," says Midgley.
"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."
According to the BBC producer who had contacted the Campaign for Digital Rights, and who asked not to be named, it is standard practice for radio stations including the BBC to copy tracks from CDs onto computers to make it easier for the producer to switch between a live DJ and a music track.
Peeking into Windows
In this case, the CD single appeared to be unreadable by Microsoft 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 says in an e-mail message.
The CD was then tried out in several different machines, including two PCs from Hewlett-Packard, two PCs from Compaq Computer, and one from Dell Computer -- all running several versions of Windows, he says.
"Usually Windows Explorer came back with 'cannot access D:/,' although the Dell managed to read the disc once," the BBC producer says.
"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 analog 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)."
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," according to information on the Sony site. "This ensures the highest efficiency currently available. Due to the fact that key2audio protected discs do not play on PC, no ripping is possible."
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 says 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 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, 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 announced it has also developed a new technology to prevent the copying of CDs 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 says.
Whereas programmers have found ways around the systems and developed software patches that enable users to bypass any protection, Sanyo says 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, which makes the Easy CD Creator software program, announced its plans to integrate digital rights management encryption/decryption code into future versions of its CD-burning software.
As part of a partnership between Roxio and EMI Recorded Music, 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 says.
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