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Wednesday, 15 August, 2001, 07:30 GMT 08:30 UK
Technology puts a lock on CDs
CD protection threatens to end music swapping
CD protection threatens to end music swapping
By BBC News Online North America business reporter David Schepp

Sharing music recorded on compact discs among friends over the internet has proven itself to be as American as apple pie and baseball.

But music-swapping is a pastime that may be soon halted if recording companies have their way.

Consumers are going to run screaming from these kinds of solutions

Aram Sinnreich, analyst, Jupiter Media Metrix
Stung by the success of internet-based Napster, major record labels, such as Vivendi Universal, Sony, EMI and Warner Music, have signed on with encryption firms that have developed technologies to halt the so-called pirating of copyrighted music.

For the encryption companies it may mean millions of dollars in profits as record label after record label signs on to take advantage of the new, seemingly perfected technology.

For the record companies, however, it could be a public-relations disaster.

Already bruised and battered from their public fight with all but busted Napster over the legality of its service, the recording firms are perceived by a wary public as the Goliath who defeated David.

Public relations hazard

"Consumers are going to run screaming from these kinds of solutions," says Jupiter Media Metrix analyst Aram Sinnreich. "This could be more of PR hazard for [record labels] than Napster ever was."

Country music's Charley Pride was the first artist to get an encrypted CD
Country music's Charley Pride was the first artist to get an encrypted CD
What made Napster so wildly successful was a file-compression technology called MP3 that allows users to put many more songs - hours instead of minutes - on a compact disc than could normally fit.

The compressed format also allows music to be sent across the internet in far less time than it would otherwise take.

What drove Napster was music-swapping, which involves taking a CD - in its entirety or just one song - and trading it with an online partner who may reciprocate with an album or song of their own.

The process of taking music from a CD is called ripping. Once the music is ripped from the CD, it can be loaded onto a computer hard drive or put on a recordable compact disc.

Because MP3 allows song files to be reduced greatly with any noticeable degradation in sound quality, it is a technology that is also wildly popular with users of personal digital assistants (PDAs). The compression technology permits quick and easy downloads for a day's full of music.

Useless CDs

There is a concern among CD buyers that anti-piracy technology being deployed - currently undergoing testing, by firms such as Macrovision and Midbar Technologies - may render legally obtained CDs useless for some users.

What we do is a modification to the way the CD is placed on the disk that confuses the [computer's] drive

Eyal Shavit, Midbar
The scrambling-technology being tested works with nearly all CD music players. But even Macrovision President Bill Krepick says perfection is beyond the pale.

"It's impossible to get to 100%", he said, adding that he expects 99.6% to 99.7% of all players to be able to play CDs encrypted with his company's SafeAudio technology.

It is not known which music firms are using encryption technology or to what extent. It has been reported that Macrovision has distributed nearly 200,000 CDs to test SafeAudio, its anti-piracy system.

A spokeswoman for Macrovision confirmed the 200,000 figure but was able to provide further information.

Already in distribution

"We provide the technology to a label, and they're the ones who actually produce and distribute [the CDs]," says Miao Chuang, director of marketing at Macrovision.

"It's to the interest of the rights owners as well as technology providers that we have to work together to make sure the interests of both sides are well covered," Ms Chaung told BBC News Online. "That's the purpose of all the field tests."

The technology works by scrambling or distorting the music on the CDs, making it difficult for CD players on computers to play the music - and thus replicate it.

"What we do is a modification to the way the CD is placed on the disk that confuses the [computer's] drive," says Eyal Shavit, vice president for research and development at Midbar Technologies.

The company recently revealed that one million CDs protected by Midbar technology have so far been released into the European market.

Plans are under discussion for entry into the US market.

Universal Music is but one record company that has been evaluating various technologies in the US and Europe to protect CDs and other physical formats from theft.

"This is obviously an issue that is important," Universal Music said in a written statement. "We are working rigorously towards a solution that protects our artists' works while maximizing the consumer experience."

See also:

20 Jul 01 | Business
Napster use slumps 65%
29 May 01 | New Media
Record giant to share MP3 damages
18 Jul 01 | New Media
Napster counts on latest technology
15 Jun 01 | Sci/Tech
The sound of shrinking
06 Jun 00 | Entertainment
MP3: A novice's guide
01 May 01 | Sci/Tech
Record makers lock music away
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