Introduction (or skip forwards to the Quick Summary)


Ever since Napster came to prominence, the music CD publishers have been looking for a way to stop people sharing MP3s extracted from their CDs, and now they think they’ve found it — by ‘copy-protecting’ the CD releases. They hope that by making CDs unplayable on computers that this will reduce the number of MP3s getting onto the internet.

However, these new CD formats are unlikely to reduce MP3 file-sharing, because 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. Actually, it might turn out to be even easier than that — software work-arounds have come to light for at least one of the formats already.

What is worse is that CDs were never designed to play on one machine better than another — they were designed to play equally well on every CD player. So, to make a CD that will play on a normal CD player but not on a computer means bending and breaking the rules that define what a CD is. This is a very approximate art indeed, with many unpleasant side-effects.

In their attempts to create a CD that fits their aims, the record companies have tried many methods of corrupting the CD format, and then they have tested these by making secret releases into localized markets, sometimes of hundreds of thousands of CDs. Everyday people have then bought these sub-standard CDs, and have been unknowingly testing the record company’s new CD protection schemes for them.

For instance, an early release made under Midbar’s Cactus format in Germany reportedly had a 4% return rate. These were from people who found that these CDs didn’t work on their normal CD players — let alone in their computers. 4% is a huge return rate when you consider that many people might have found a problem with one CD player but not another, and who might have thought it was the player that was at fault rather than the CD.

Undeterred by these experiences of upsetting their customers, the record companies have continued to develop these formats and test them on an unsuspecting public, either unlabelled or with small or misleading labels. Along the way, problems with these CDs have been found on DVD players, car audio systems, older CD players, PlayStation machines, computers, laptops and several other types of devices.

To add injury to insult, several of these so-called ‘copy-protection’ formats actually interfere with the error-correction mechanism of the disk. This mechanism is designed to take care of scratches on the disk — your CD player can fill in over a small number of scratches on the disk because the error correction codes tell it how to. The manufacturers found that by corrupting the error correction codes, they could make a CD that computers would reject, but that normal CD players would still manage to play. The cost of this, of course, is that your CDs are less resistant to scratches (and Philips have confirmed this). This is not too much inconvenience for the manufacturer — but what about for everybody else?

If for no other reason, this aspect alone has been enough to provoke many people to act. It seems that the manufacturers have been showing a complete lack of respect for their customers with their actions. Many people feel that this can’t be allowed to remain as a hidden half-secret any longer. The public must know!

So, why are they really doing this? To be honest, I don’t know. Taking a cynical viewpoint, maybe it’s the only way that the record companies’ anti-MP3 guys can keep their jobs. Alternatively, maybe it’s because companies like Midbar and Macrovision are hyping their copy-protection formats as real solutions for an industry desperate to find a way that they can “fight back”, whilst ignoring the fact that these formats can bring many times more problems than they actually solve — a costly inconvenience for everyday people using CDs in everyday ways. But, who am I to say?

In any case, the record companies seem determined to keep going along this path — Universal, for instance, has said that it wants all of its CDs copy-protected within six months. We feel that they should not be allowed to get away with this. As I write this, there are still unlabelled copy-protected CDs available to buy in the shops — the public is still being lied to and mislead. We want this issue to become common public knowledge so that the record companies can no longer get away with all these underhand tactics. Let the public decide!