Recording Rip-Off

Record companies finding ways to deter audio piracy using high-tech copy protection.

Stick the "Mr. Deeds" soundtrack into a PC and instead of hearing the sounds of David Bowie, Natalie Imbruglia and the Dave Matthews Band you'll hear... absolutely nothing.

The disc is one of a series of recent albums to feature copy protection encoding. To deter pirates, the CDs are often unplayable in CD ROM drives, and a few will not play in car stereos, DVD players, video game systems or anything but a regular CD audio player.

"With audio CDs in particular, there are a lot of exciting new technologies that people could use with the music that they buy, which these corrupted (copy protected) CDs may prevent them from utilizing," said Seth Schoen, assistant system administrator for the San Francisco based Electronic Frontier Foundation. "One example is the portable iPod. Typically the requirement for the player is that you need a data source that your computer can read, in order to get the music in. If you have a corrupt CD that your computer can't read, then there's no way to get the information in. So essentially you freeze the public to new technology."

Various forms of copy protection for digital entertainment have been available for several years, most notably the regional coding on DVDs, which allows discs to be played only within certain areas of the world. The technology has so far been confined primarily to European CDs, but it hit the U.S. music scene last winter with the release of Universal's "More Fast and Furious" soundtrack album. Other copy protected discs include Aerosmith's "Just Press Play," Celine Dion's "A New Day Has Come" and Tori Amos' "Strange Little Girls."

The technology emerged from the recording industry's concerns over online music swapping.

"This (music swapping) is impacting the entire music business and unless solutions are found, the incentive to create will diminish," said Kelly Mullens, spokesperson with Universal Music Group. "Like the rest of the entertainment industry we're evaluating emerging technologies to assess their viability in controlling the growing problem of unauthorized copying, duplication and dissemination."

BMG is currently working on a system called Digital Access, which would feature two versions of the album on a disc, one for CD players and an encrypted version which can be downloaded onto hard drives, but cannot be burned. Digital security firm Macrovision has already developed a similar program, which allows discs to be heard on Windows Media Player.

Most protection encoding works by "tricking" the computer with a corrupt track that renders the system blind to the music on the disc or simply locks the files. According to a recent article on the O'Reilly Network, the technology may actually reduce the durability of the CD by compromising the error correction codes, which instruct the player to compensate for small scratches on the surface.

But some claim that the protection is relatively easy to defeat. One popular story involves finding the corrupt track and simply blacking it out with a felt tip marker. Others have taken to running a digital output cord from a CD player to a computer.

Schoen said he believes the music industry eventually hopes to replace the CD with other audio formats that will be encrypted in such a way so that only the manufacturer will know how they work.

"They (the record companies) will only explain how to play the discs to manufacturers who've agreed to enforce the particular restrictions they've enacted," he said. "So then the inventors are forced to get the permission of the publishers before developing new technologies. And the publishers in the movie and music industries, being fairly conservative, aren't necessarily eager to approve."


Reported list of some copy protected discs

Aerosmith "Just Push Play"

Tori Amos "Strange Little Girls"

Celine Dion "A New Day has Come"

N'Sync "Celebrity"

Queensryche "Live Evolution"

Roger Waters "Flickering Flame"

"More Fast and Furious" Soundtrack

"Mr. Deeds" Soundtrack

Courtesy of

Copy protected discs work primarily by fooling the computer with a corrupt track, false start times and other erroneous data. Some methods prevent the disc from being played on car stereos, DVD players, video game systems or anything but a regular CD audio player.