Chuck Heffner is fighting for your right to copy music, one CD at a time. His website, fatchucks.com, has a list of ”Corrupt CDs”—releases that have been supposedly modified by record companies to be copy-proof—by artists including Tori Amos, Björk, and Aerosmith. The submissions come from the site’s 30,000 daily visitors who are out to inform fellow music buyers whether their next purchase will be MP3-player and CD-burner compatible.
Welcome to the latest skirmish in the battle between the recording industry and music-loving users of new technology: CD copy-protection. Never mind Napster: Five billion blank CDs have been shipped worldwide this year; in Europe, blank discs already outsell new releases. And the price of CD burners has dropped so low as to make cassette players nearly obsolete. To protect their eroding profits, record companies have been toying with producing CDs that are MP3-unfriendly, difficult to duplicate more than once, and in some cases, impossible to ”rip” and ”burn” at all. ”Drastic measures call for dramatic responses,” says Jay Samit, senior VP of new media for EMI Recorded Music, which is testing but not yet selling copy-proof CDs. The experiment is already well under way overseas, though, and rumors run rampant that some labels are now releasing trial batches of copy-proof albums in the U.S.—say, ten thousand copies of a particular teen-pop record here, a few thousand copies of a rap-metal record there—but not revealing which ones are encoded among hundreds of thousands that are pressed. The result is that Heffner’s CD-only consumer reports are often, at least partially, erroneous.
How can you tell if a new CD is copy-protected? You can’t until after you buy it. That’s one of the underlying complaints in a lawsuit filed in September in California. Karen DeLise bought the latest Charley Pride album, A Tribute to Jim Reeves, only to discover that it would not play in her computer’s CD drive. Ira Rothken, the lawyer representing DeLise in her suit against Fahrenheit Entertainment, calls it ”unfair and misleading” to sell a CD without informing the consumer that it doesn’t work like all the others. Fahrenheit dismisses the allegation and says that the CD was labeled in three places—all the while admitting that the CD won’t necessarily work normally in every type of player. Rothken is hoping to establish guidelines for the type and placement of warning labels put on future copy-protected CDs.
Yet this legal action may be the least of the labels’ worries. Even inside the music industry, copy-proofing CDs is considered a last-ditch attempt to stave off digital piracy. And it’s a ploy that could backfire, because the copy-prevention technology currently available isn’t quite up to snuff. In addition to the problems with PC drives, the copy protection can render albums unlistenable on high-end CD players and some car stereos as well.
But not every PC jukebox glitch is the result of a copy-protected CD. New albums from Incubus and Garbage are listed on fatchucks.com as being corrupt. But the record companies that distribute those discs, Sony and Universal, insist they aren’t using copy protection on those CDs—or any other U.S. releases. Apparently, some overzealous watchdogs on fatchucks.com are encountering unrelated hardware or software conflicts.
But now that the record companies have unleashed the idea of copy protection, says Heffner, the blame for CDs that won’t play “is going to move from you and your computer to the record label and the manufacturer.” The upside? At least you’ll have someone other than Microsoft to blame.