NEW YORK – Burning and downloading songs may soon be an activity of the past, as copy-protected CDs begin to hit the market.
Last month, More Fast and Furious: Songs From and Inspired by the Motion Picture, became the first copy-protected release by a major label in the United States. Some protected CDs have been released by smaller labels and as test batches in the past.
And Friday, Virginia Congressman Rick Boucher sent a detailed letter to the Recording Industry of America and The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry voicing his concern over copy-protected CDs.
"According to many published reports, record labels have begun releasing compact discs into the market which apparently have been designed to limit the ability of consumers to play the discs or record on personal computers..." he wrote. "I am particularly concerned that some of these technologies may prevent or inhibit consumer home recording using recorders and media covered by the Audio Home Recording Act of 1992 (AHRA)."
The music industry is trying to discourage people from downloading songs off the Internet or burning copies to pass on to others and to encourage them to shop for CDs instead. Yet, experts say the industry may end up alienating fans by implementing the new protection measures.
"The copy-protection technology is in the early stages," said Ted Greenwald, senior editor at Wired. "It's unpredictable what platforms these CDs will work on, it depends on the copy-protecting scheme used."
Some methods of copy protection make it impossible for people to listen to CDs on a computer, load them onto an MP3 player, copy songs for personal use or, in one reported case, to even play the CD at all. And just as music-listening gadgets like Apple's iPod, capable of saving 1,000 songs, get more advanced, these protected CDs are creating a hurdle for fans.
If these protected CDs hold so many potential pitfalls why are the record companies going ahead with them?
"Their avowed target is people who copy the files from the disc, transform them to MP3 files and post them on the Net," Greenwald said. "That one copy can potentially spread to millions of people around the world. It's the Achilles heel of the entire protection effort. All it takes is one."
The Recording Industry Association of America, which has been scrambling to thwart online music trading sites for years, has thrown its full support behind the new technology.
"The unprecedented amount of music being copied is hurting the industry," RIAA President and CEO Hilary Rosen said in a press statement. "Consequently, RIAA supports the manufacturing of copy-protected CDs to help step up Internet piracy."
Chuck Heffner, a software industry technical manager in Cincinnati, is campaigning against copy protection via his Web site, www.fatchucks.com, which allows visitors to add to a list of CDs suspected to be protected.
"Copy-protected CDs are wrong," said Heffner, 37. "They are defective products which do not play in all computer-based devices such as PCs, Discmans, DVD players, and car CD players. They effectively take away our fair use rights to make personal copies. They are extremely discriminatory because if they do play on computers, they'll only play on Windows — forget Mac or Linux."
Heffner sees his site's list as a useful service because whether and when CDs will be clearly marked as being copy protected is unclear.
"It's evident that protected CDs are being released in batches for the purposes of market testing," he said. "By allowing people to report their CDs here it allows the public to benefit from multiple fan's knowledge … If the record industry merely labeled their copy-protected CDs honestly and openly, none of us would have to guess."
But while this protection technology may cause kinks in the copying process, crafty listeners will prevail, said Greenwald.
"Ultimately if you can hear it, you can copy it. At worse you can hold a microphone up to a speaker and record it," he said. "The goal [of the record companies] is to discourage large numbers of people from copying, and to make it more worth their while to buy the disc."
Greenwald said he isn't surprised that the first big studio copy-protected release is a soundtrack and not associated with one particular group. Artists, he said, will eventually begin to choose sides in the copy-protection war, as many did during the Napster controversy. Metallica, one of the most vocal anti-Napster bands, was heavily criticized for their stance, even by their loyal fans.
Nevertheless, the RIAA is steadfast and hopes to appease all sides.
"Many music and technology companies are already testing alternative forms of copy protection that they hope will offer the right balance between preventing wholesale copying and uploading to the Internet while still allowing some copying … for personal use," Rosen said.
The Napster fight was a drawn out, legal nightmare between the Web site, the music industry and various artists. Who will win the copy-protection battle is yet to be seen, but Greenwald thinks the industry's plan will ultimately backfire.
"I think technology is not on their side, the fans are not on their side," he said. "In the long run they would have to sew up so many holes to make their products air tight they'll be fighting this battle for another hundred years. From a business standpoint this is just stupid."