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RANT 23

Copy protection issues

Uwe

When I looked in the shops for Iron Maiden's new single Wildest Dreams, I found that it carried a sticker on the front, saying that it is copy-controlled. A small table on the back explained that it was compatible with CD players, DVD players, and other equipment, but that it could possibly be incompatible with other equipment, i.e., it would not play. Well, I was quite shocked to see the newest release of my favourite band being copy-protected. Copy protection had only been used for CDs of mainstream pop acts, and this was one of the first metal CDs. Nevertheless, I bought it, curious to see whether it would actually play on my system. You may guess what happened: It did not play at all – so I returned the copy to the shop – what's the point in owning a CD I can't listen to?

But then I thought about it. If the record label thought it necessary to put a copy protection on the single of a band nobody except true fans would ever buy, then without a doubt, they would think it necessary for the upcoming album as well. I already knew that this would cause problems, not only to me, but also to other people with similar equipment. Therefore, I decided to take a look at this issue in greater detail, including the reasons of the record companies to introduce these mechanisms, and some technical details showing which problems arise from the use of these protection mechanisms.

I do not blame Iron Maiden for the copy protection on their CD – it was a decision of the record label. But why did the label decide to do something like this?

During the last five years, sharing music files over the internet has become increasingly popular. The mp3 format, combining good sound quality with relatively small file sizes, is just perfect for this new way of spreading music. Soon, dedicated filesharing programs like Napster came up, and of course, were a huge success in terms of the number of shared files.

Using such filesharing services enabled me to listen to new bands – bands I would otherwise never have got to know. Listening to mp3s was exactly what I needed to discover new bands and explore new genres. Of course, I would have been able to listen to the records in the store before buying them. But I doubt my judging an album from one hasty listening session in a noisy store, with cheap headphones – especially if it is rather complex material. When I liked the music I had heard, I went out to the next store and bought the album. When I did not, I simply deleted the mp3 file.

Downloading mp3s was also a great way to get rare stuff by obscure bands whose albums were long out of print, or bootleg recordings from concerts of my favourite bands. In the end, I had bought a lot more CDs than before, simply because I had listented to the albums and therefore knew I could expect a good album for my money. With prices of more than 15 EUR for a CD (as well as being a student without much money to spend) I have to decide carefully which albums to buy. Some mp3s I had downloaded from the internet were the best advertisement imaginable.

In some ways, this is similar to the tape-trading during the 1980s. Many bands, especially in the heavy metal genre, were successful because fans shared their cassette tapes to introduce others to these new bands. The only real difference to copying CDs is the fact, that you can do a digital copy without any loss of quality, whereas tapes would deteoriate sooner or later. On the other hand, tape-trading was done by fans, who then went out to buy the records.

Nowadays, people like me, who use mp3s to explore new bands and different genres, seem to be a minority. Most people simply download complete albums, with no intend to buy them, even if they like them. "Why should I invest a lot of money on something I can get for free?", was the answer I got from a friend of mine, when I asked him why he did not buy the albums of his favourite band – he has every single release in mp3 format. To me, these people are not fans. Of course I downloaded complete albums too, but I always also wanted to buy the albums when I liked the songs. There are some things mp3 files just cannot deliver. These files are compressed, and although their quality may be quite good, it is easy to hear the difference to a CD on a good stereo. Your mp3s do not have a good packaging with a stunning frontcover and a 12-page booklet with the lyrics. As the endowment sets the mood for the music, it is extremely important to me to be able to look at a cover, to read the lyrics – it is a different experience than just listening to some mp3 files.

Since CD sales have declined during the late 90s, the music industry has made the decision that something had to be changed. Their explanation was easy: People do not buy CDs because they download music from the internet. But isn't it possible that there are other factors which also contributed to declining sales? In times of economic pressure people will think twice before they spend money on luxuries, and music is – in a way – luxury. Now add rising prices which do not seem reasonable to most customers, and the result is a decline in sales figures.

Another problem, which concerns me much more, is the general development of the musical landscape. Casting shows like Starsearch produce new acts as if they were an assembly line – one sounds like the other. No identity, no soul, exchangeable. Those pop acts are pushed by popular media, have one or two hit singles and then they vanish. They never get the chance to build a solid fan base, like many heavy metal acts do – they do not need popular mass media to sell. I do not know which audience these acts are aimed at, probably teenagers, who can easily be manipulated. Certainly, they do not aim at fans with own interests and an own taste of music who are selective about what they listen to.

Iron Maiden brings singles into the Top 40 without having radio airplay, without being on MTV's heavy rotation. How do they do this? Simply because the fans know that they can expect a high quality release. With most new acts, either pop or nu metal or whatever, you cannot expect anything similar. This uncertainty leads to the trend of downloading an album before ever considering to buy it. And in most cases, people do not buy the album after having listened to the mp3s because the CD is not worth its price.

"You people fucking download music because bands today have 1 ½ good songs and they are already being played on the fucking radio. So why are the music executives bitching when you pay their fucking salaries. Maybe if they put of more than 1 ½ fucking good songs then you guys would buy the fucking CD! Now we're gonna play a song off our upcoming album so if any of you have any recorders or any type of bootlegging equipment you go the fuck ahead and record our shit and put it on the internet because we know in the end you will still be fucking supporting us."
– Bruce Dickinson Irvine California, 24th August 2003

That's spot on. Of course, even Iron Maiden would not like to see their new album distributed on the internet. With low-quality bootleg recordings, that may be different. But concerning the quality of their records, Iron Maiden never had an album with only 1 ½ good songs on it. Personally, I will never pay what Bruce called "the equivalent of three to four beers" for an album with only one or two good songs on it. (In fact, I could even get a dozen bottles of beer for the price of one CD). Anyway, the decline of CD sales is not simply caused by a rising number of files downloaded from the internet.

Yet it seems, that the music industry managers are very narrow-minded. They do not see these facts, but keep on blaming internet filesharing for the decline over the past two years. In order to stop people from ripping CDs onto their computer, from where the files can be converted to mp3 and then distributed over the internet, they began campaigning against copying. I think there was a "copy killz music" campaign about three years ago. This was nothing new, there had been "tape-trading kills music"-campaigns back in the late 1970s, with little effect. When this campaign had no effect the industry launched a copy-protection campaign. In my opinion, copying does not kill music. It only kills those casted acts nobody really wants to hear – except manipulable simple-minded teenagers. Apart from installing a copy protection mechanism on their newly released CDs (which I will examine in detail later on) record labels have tried to explain their reasons in various statements. I have read those statements and will give my thoughts on some of their points.

Record labels claim that they had to introduce copy protection because of a rising level of piracy. "With a million files shared on peer-to-peer services, a million CDs are not bought", they say. And at the same time the sales of blank CDs rise ever higher, blank CDs which "are used to copy downloaded illegal music files". I would interpret this as "piracy threatens the income of our managers, who would rather cast one new act every week, and advertise it as the latest, most fashionable thing out there". Of course, sales of such acts suffer most, as I have already pointed out. But, as I have also explained, it is not only piracy that influences sales – there are other, more important influences. Apart from that, the statement that the number of shared files equals the number of missing CD sales is simply false. I would never have bought all the CDs of the files I had downloaded, because most of the files were not even worth the download time, let alone the price of a CD. Well, and not every blank CDs is used to store illegally downloaded music files. There is a thing called data backup, a perfectly legal use of blank CDs.

Thanks to a new regulation, copy protected CDs are labelled appropriately, so I do clearly see which CDs I do not have to consider buying. The first protected CD I saw did not have any sticker or warning on it, so I was somewhat shocked when I was unable to play it. That was about three years ago. Ever since, I am very cautious about copy protection and the ability to play those CDs on my equipment. However, when ordering online I cannot see any sticker or compatibility information. Some shops do not provide any concerning information at all, which will result in warranty issues, if such a CD refuses to play. This in turn will result in unhappy customers, who will be reluctant to buy new CDs if they cannot be sure that it will play correctly. I have heard of seniors who now refuse to buy new CDs because of this "new technology crap that does not work", and I am pretty sure that these people have never used any file sharing service – let alone know what they are.

On the other hand, every copy protection mechanism of pay-TV, games, DVDs and so on has been broken into after a certain time. Therefore, on the long run any given copy-protection technology will never prevent anyone from finding a way around. It will become a race between new protection technologies and means to circumvent them. Since a CD still has to be playable on existing players, there are limits for copy-protection technologies. Therefore, in my opinion, there will always be ways to get around those protections. The answer of the record companies reads as follows: "Our intention is to prevent a substantial percentage of current CD-copying activity through a technical barrier. This will make the copying decision and action a conscious one – i.e., to commit an illegal act." I do not think that any professional pirate will be disturbed by this fact. Those professional pirates are well aware of what they are doing, and they also know ways around any copy protection, rendering it completely useless.

Even if all attempts in copying a CD fail, you may still copy it on a CD-Player with digital output (i.e., optical), which is then connected to some digital input on your computer. There, you only need to record it. This ensures perfect quality and works around every copy protection. You may also get decent results with analogue recording, i.e., connecting the speaker output of your player to the line-in of the soundcard. These ways of copying still exist, and they always will. This renders any copy protection useless – with little effort anybody can work around it.

Even more incomprehensible is the fact that there are often different versions of a CD, one protected, one without protection. Iron Maiden's new Dance Of Death record is available as a protected version – only the UK and US releases do not have copy protection. Same goes for other releases. Every pirate will easily get an unprotected copy and start copying without any hassle. Only legal customers receive an inferior product, unless they pay more to get an import of an unprotected version. In order to understand why I see protected CDs as inferior products, it is necessary to give some technical details.

Originally, audio CDs were a standard designed by Philips and Sony back in 1978. This standard described the way the audio data is stored on the disc, as well as details such as error correction – which is the important catch of all copy-protection attempts. Every CD compliant to this standard, may bear the "Compact Disc Digital Audio" logo. And every kind of player which says it can play CDs compliant to this standard, will play them, regardless if it's a hifi-system, a car-radio, a DVD player or a CD-ROM in your computer.

The error correction mechanisms were designed to make the discs more resistant to scratches. On vinyl records, every little scratch results in audible noises, and you can wear down a record by constantly playing it. Since playing a CD works with laser technology, this problem is solved – apart from the fact that there may be scratches on the surface of the disc, resulting in reading errors, as the laser is reflected differently. The error-correction mechanism detects such scratched areas, and interpolates the correct value from the values before and behind the affected area. Therefore, the signal from your speakers is the same and you won't hear the difference – except for heavy scratches too big to interpolate good results. So far, so good.

Most copy protection systems put digital "scratches" on the disc, and corrupt the table of contents, the part of the CD where the actual location of the audio tracks is stored. Your normal CD player won't see a difference between real scratches and the copy protection. It will use the error-correction mechanisms, and in most cases, it will play the CD flawlessly. However, most CD-ROM drives or portable players have got a different kind of error correction. CD-ROMs also have to read data CDs, where a single error may corrupt all data on the disc. Therefore, everything has to be read correctly without any interpolation. These drives are confused because of the corrupted location table and the many "scratches" on the disc. That was the idea of copy protection – a CD which is playable on normal CD-players, but not on CD-ROM drives. However, portable players, newer hifi-systems or DVD players may use the same technologies CD-ROM drives use – with the result that they won't play the CD. So it may depend on your luck whether your player recognises and plays these discs correctly.

In general, copy protected CDs will play on most CD players. However, quite a few problems are known with car-radios, certain DVD-players, and portable players. On most computer CD-ROMs drives, they will completely fail to play. To circumvent this problem and to be able to listen to a copy-protected CD in your computer, many CDs feature a player software, which installs itself and then plays some compressed version of the music. But didn't I actually buy the CD to get superior sound quality, instead of some player, which plays mp3s I could have downloaded from the internet? In addition, these players only work with Windows and on Macintosh systems. What can I do if there is Linux or some other operating system installed on my computer? This software player stuff is no solution.

But it still gets worse. Even if the CD can be played, there may be audible distortions, results of the digital "scratches" of the copy protection. These "scratches" also make the CDs more vulnerable to real scratches. The error-correction is busy correcting the digital "scratches", and may fail to do so when there are also real scratches, thus shortening the life-span of such discs.

Since copy protection violates the standard for audio CDs, protected discs do not carry the "Compact Disc Digital Audio" logo, but some "Copy Control" logo, which seems to be a new "standard". However, copy protection is not written down in any standard. It will change and evolve, as record labels struggle to develop new ways of preventing their CDs from being copyable. If there was a fixed standard, it couldbe broken into easily – that would not be too clever, from the label's point of view.

After having discussed several details of copy protection, what is the conclusion? The most important thing is: It does not work. It prevents CDs from being played on standard CD players, but it does not prevent copying, as some CD-ROM drives flawlessly read those CDs. Copy protection does not stop certain indviduals from pirating CDs. It also makes it impossible for many decent customers to listen to a CD in their cars, portable players, or on their computers. It also prevents people from making backup copies (or at least makes it more difficult), which may be perfectly legal depending on the respective laws of their countries. Unprecise laws concerning copy protection are another problem, but discussing them would require an extra rant, which would be very dry and out of place on an Iron Maiden fansite.

Concerning backup copies of bought CDs, I would never put any of my precious CDs into my car, in case it is broken into or stolen. The high temperatures inside a car in summer may also destroy a CD much faster. And what about a copy for a portable player? If it is scratched, well, who cares, burn a new one. If the original is too scratched to be played it is very time-consuming to get a replacement, if this is possible at all.

I own a PC, which serves as a multimedia platform, combining music, TV and DVD player. It is equipped with expensive components and a 5.1 surround system. I do not need a standalone CD player, and I certainly won't buy one just to be able to play copy-protected CDs. Therefore, my personal solution is obvious: I won't buy any copy-protected CD, even if it's the newest record of my all-time favourite band. Why should I buy an album I can't listen to? And even if it would actually play on my system now – who guarantees that it will be playable on a high-end system I might buy in a few years? Copy-protected CDs do not have any standard, so it is absolutely possible that I will be stuck with a record I cannot listen to when I upgrade my system. With normal CDs, this will never be a problem – they were designed to play on every single player compliant to the standard.

In my opinion, today's situation was mainly caused by faults and shortcomings of the music industry. The labels failed in forming new high-profile acts, which would sell a fair amount of CDs regardless of the current fashion or the economic situation. Instead, casted acts are labeled "Superstar" before they even get their first single out. To me, a superstar has had to prove that he/she can be around for let's say a decade, without fading away. In my opinion, acts like Madonna, or Bruce Springsteen are superstars, not the newest boygroup which will be forgotten when fashion – or the opinion of the managers – changes.

I would of course also like to see the record labels reducing prices on CDs. Currently, a CD costs around 15–16 EUR here in Germany, whereas a DVD with the latest Hollywood movie is available at about 20–22 EUR. Most people will buy the DVD instead of a CD because they get more value for their money. Just cut prices to about 10 EUR for a CD, and people will buy more records – as long as the musical content is convincing enough. Record labels also have completely ignored the development on the internet market. Providing legal downloads, maybe with a small charge, can form a possible alternative to illegal downloading. This procedure would of course only be interesting only for people who are actually supporting music as fans, not as pirates. Those people simply collect mp3s because they are available.

I do not endorse piracy. I am a fan. As fan, I want to have perfectly legal copies of my favourite albums, bought in store. However, I do not see the point of using copy protection, and I will continue to boycott copy-protected releases. I may consider getting an unprotected import of one or two of my all-time favourite bands (as I did with the new Dance Of Death album). It is the record labels' problem: They will not get as much of my money, and I sincerely hope they will understand that ripping off their loyal customers cannot be the appropriate way to stop piracy.

Uwe
23rd September 2003

 

Useful links:

  • http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/ – A UK-based site concerning digital rights in general, with lots of in-depth coverage on copy-protected CDs and the concerning legal issues.


  • http://www.heise.de/ct/cd-register/ – An impressive collection of reports about protected CDs. Provides information on systems on which customers were able to listen to and copy the CDs. Focuses on the German market in particular.

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