CD copy-protection

By Вen Li

The Doors, 2 Pac, Jewel, N*Sync and Destiny’s Child may clash musically, but their fans have something in common: angst against copy-protected CDs. Dubbed “corrupt music disks” by some, copy-protected CDs purposely include invalid data to defeat computer CD readers and mp3 rippers in an effort to minimize unauthorized duplication of songs.

"[Universal Music Group] is incorporating copy protection into their CDs to assess its viability in protecting the rights of our artists and copyright holders by preventing CD copying and illegal Internet distribution," reads a UMG statement regarding the copy-protected The Fast and the Furious soundtrack released last year. Universal, which by some reports has shipped only copy-protected CDs since last October, acknowledges that copy-protected CDs may not play in some CD players, DVD players or computers, and may cause CD players to malfunction.

Copy-protected CDs include invalid error-correcting code, code that is used normally to detect and compensate for scratches on the CD. Instead, this code is used to purposely corrupt the data on a protected CD when it is read by computers. Computer CD drives always use the error-correcting code to verify and fix-or in this case, corrupt-data while audio CD drives only use the error-correcting code when the CD has been scratched. Thus, the entire CD will be miscorrected when read on a computer, while only occasional scratches are miscorrected when read by audio devices. Another copy-protection technique writes a slightly-mangled table of contents to CDs, confusing computers but not entertainment gear.

But neither the copy-protection nor the playability of copy-protected CDs is assured on the broad range of CD-playback equipment, including computers and stereos manufactured in the last 20 years. The copy-protection also introduces pops and other noise to the music and the corrupt data causes some computers and audio equipment to malfunction. The inclusion of corrupt data violates the Compact Disc Digital Audio standard and may violate patents held jointly by Philips Electronics and Sony.

Because the CDs are non-standard and may not play in Compact Disc-compatible equipment, Philips took a stand against copy-protection technology. While their authority to act is unclear, Philips stated in Janurary that they may ask record labels to remove the Compact Disc mark from future copy-protected music disks, to include warning labels indicating their non-conformity and to segregate copy-protected music disks from regular CDs. Philips also warned that because the error-correcting code is corrupt, copy-protected music disks are less durable and says that it may support copy-protection-defeating technologies in future products.

Fans revolt

In trials of the technology in Germany last year, up to four per cent of CDs protected by Midbar’s copy-protection scheme, were returned to stores as defective compared to less than one percent of conventional CDs according to industry sources. In the U.K., angry music fans have even protested in front of music stores in nine cities to educate the public about copy-protection and to voice their opposition to it.

One outraged fan, Karen DeLise made her message clear through legal action.

On Feb. 22 Music City Records settled out of court a class-action lawsuit (DeLise v. Fahrenheit Entertainment, Music City Records, and Sunncomm) that alleged Charley Pride’s CD A Tribute to Jim Reeves did not work on standard CD players but were not labelled as copy-protected. The copy-protection allegedly prevented Compact Disc-compatible computers from playing the CD and prevented users from "space-shifting" songs from the CD to computers and mp3 players, actions permitted under fair-use doctrine of copyright law.

"We are hopeful that this settlement will create a model for other records to follow if they want to sell functionally inferior [copy-protected] music CDs by making them different from the millions of CDs sold in the past," said the Plaintiffs’ attorney Ira Tothken. The settlement also included provisions for customers to return unplayable CDs to retailers, and requirements that Music City Records label their copy-protected CDs.

On the broader front however, users have fought back against what they perceive as the labels’ overprotective practices by compiling lists of copy-protected albums and organizing mass returns of copy-protected CDs. Internet users especially, who have an interest in making and sharing mp3s online, have lashed out against copy-protection.

"Since Napster came to prominence, the music CD publishers have been looking for a way to stop people sharing mp3s extracted from their CDs," said Jim Peters of the U.K. Campaign for Digital Rights ( in a statement. "They hope that making CDs unplayable on computers will reduce the number of MP3s getting onto the Internet."

Ineffective protection

To address consumer concerns and to counter mp3 piracy labels have introduced proprietary music files and players on their copy-protected CDs or as downloadable files. Unfortunately, the players only work with Windows and occasionaly Macintoshes, and the "protected" tracks remain readable on some computers. Users can also circumvent the copy-protection through relatively simple means.

"You can still copy a CD via digital connections, or if all else fails through plugging an audio lead into the back of the CD player," notes Peters. "Actually, it might turn out to be even easier than that-software work-arounds have come to light for at least one of the [copy-protection] formats already."

In general, mp3 rippers have found copy-protection more of an annoyance than a hindrance. Michael Jackson’s promotional single You Rock My World was one of the first copy-protected CDs released and the track appeared on online file sharing services hours after its debut. The ease by which the copy-protection can be defeated leads other users alledge that copy-protection is an attempt by labels to fortify control over both content and its distribution, especially on the Internet, a medium they have little influence over.

"The record labels are not ‘copy-protecting’ CDs to stop hackers, and they know it," states Fat Chuck’s Web site ( which includes a list of "corrupt" CDs. "They are doing this to prevent the average, non-technical person from enjoying their fair use rights. That includes making copies for your personal use, making mp3s and making compilations of your favorite music on one CD. This way they can increase their sales when you have to replace your defective CD more quickly, or have to pay $10 a month to get their music online, or have to pay twice to get music that plays at home and at work, in your car, or wherever."

While users may not like the inconvienience of copy-protected CDs, it is clear that the labels are justifiably adamant about protecting intellectual property rights. Whether through technological means like copy-protection or legislation such as the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act and pending World Intellectual Property Organization treaties, labels are obligated to try to prevent illegal distribution and preserve their artists’ and their own rights, often to the detriment of fans and customers.

The idea of labels protecting intellectual property may be noble, but profit is often a motivating factor for businesses above all else.

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