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Corrupt audio discs, aka "Copy-Protected CDs"

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UKCDR calls for EMI to abandon flawed "Copy-Control" CD technology

Article dated 7-Apr-2003, primary author: Jim Peters

Recent evidence uncovered by the UKCDR (UK Campaign for Digital Rights) has proven clearly that not only does audio CD "copy-control" or "copy-protection" technology continue to be extremely consumer-hostile and ineffective in its stated aims, but also that some record companies (EMI in particular) have been using strongly anti-consumer and anti-competitive tactics in order to force its widespread adoption. We counter this by introducing a consumer campaign to monitor the performance of online CD retailers.

Consumer-hostile and ineffective

It has been well known now for some time that copy-control systems for audio CDs (such as MacroVision/Midbar's Cactus Data Shield 200 and Sony's Key2Audio) are not effective at hindering even personal copying of CDs, let alone the commercially-significant large-scale piracy by criminal groups. Many modern CD-ROM drives are able to read these discs without problem [1]. Indeed, it appears that Sony have now completely abandoned the use of copy-control systems judging by their UK CD releases over recent months.

A search through c't magazine's online CD database [2] shows that roughly 50% of the people making reports could extract the audio data from their copy-controlled CDs. This agrees with the reports we have received. If the aim of "copy control" is to stop people making personal copies of their CDs, then it is clearly failing. On average purchasers would need to have only one or two PC-owning friends in order to be sure of making an uncorrupted copy of any CD.

The consumer objections to copy-control technology continue to rise, however. These formats are designed to be incompatible with PCs at a fundamental level, so they also affect many other CD players with similar characteristics [3]. For instance, in-car CD players are often based on advanced computer CD-ROM drive mechanisms. High-end audiophile CD players face similar problems, as do some DVD players. Portables and other more innovative or leading-edge products (Discman and Nomad, for example) are also frequently affected. In short, the further you get from the average hi-fi CD player, the more likely you are to have problems playing copy-controlled CDs.

Since these copy-control formats necessarily break both the letter and spirit of the original CD standards [4], are undocumented, and are continually being modified and updated, even with the best will in the world it would be impossible for a CD player manufacturer to predict the compatibility of copy-controlled discs with their current or future CD players.

Anti-consumer record company tactics

A recent corrupt release by EMI/Virgin (Placebo: "Sleeping with Ghosts") as supplied by CD-WOW comes with a surprisingly strong warning from the record company:

 "Note: For copyright protection this CD incorporates copy control
  technology.  [...]  Neither the CD manufacturer nor the CD
  distributor however makes any representation or warranty with
  respect to the nature and compatibility of such copy control
  technology with any audio-visual devices or equipment and shall
  not be held liable for any loss or damage arising from the use
  thereof with such devices or equipment.  Except for defective
  product resulting from the manufacturing process and not otherwise
  disclaimed by this notice, no exchange, return or refund is
  permitted."

Given that they felt the need to legally protect themselves so strongly with this notice, we might wonder what it is they are afraid of. Given the history of severe crashes and hangs caused to PCs by these discs, however, perhaps it is more understandable. One of the more extreme examples of this was one UK-released key2audio album which permanently locked up iMacs, requiring dealer attention to return the machines to normal operation [5]. We have also heard reliable reports of several normal hi-fi CD players which have stopped working permanently, apparently because of the extra strain that these discs put on the drive mechanism [6].

The message to be taken from the above notice is that not even the record companies believe that the technology is trustworthy or reliable, and they wish to force it on the public without providing any route for come-back for the problems caused. Even the possibility of a refund is specifically excluded.

Highly anti-competitive record company actions

Between the consumer and the record companies are caught the retailers, both on the high-street and online. They are the ones who have to deal with the consumer problems, and they are the ones who are forced to accept returns, even if the record company itself will accept no responsibility for them.

We have recently learned that the record companies have been putting pressure on online retailers NOT to provide warnings on their websites informing consumers which CDs use copy-control technologies. This information is vital for consumers to make an informed choice, and the record companies' intervention here is staggering.

For example, CD-WOW are providing the following information to customers who enquire:

 "The copy control technology would indeed seem to be something that
  Record Companies (and EMI) in particular, plan to use more in the
  future.

  Even though they have now conceded to label their discs accordingly,
  they are not eager for us to advertise such a thing on our site.  We
  have been consulting them over this again more recently however, and
  we are hopeful that we will be able to make this clear to customers
  in the future.

  We appreciate that it will damage customer confidence if they are
  not sure about the compatibility of the item they are buying, and
  hope we can guard against this."

This pressure is highly anti-competitive because copy-controlled CDs, with all their problems, are clearly of less value to consumers. In a competitive environment, prices would adjust to take account of this, or one supplier would be favoured over another, but it appears that the record industry for its own reasons does not wish this to happen.

It seems that by attempting to keep information from the consumer before the sale is made, and slapping a consumer-hostile legal notice on the finished product, they hope that they can avoid the issue entirely.

Online retailer campaign

In the face of these record company tactics, it is clear that it is necessary for our campaign to redouble its efforts to protect consumer interests in this matter [7]. We have created a new section within our anti-corrupt-CD campaign pages to keep a check on retailer policies and on how well they are performing:

  http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/retail/

As you can see, many of the larger online retailers have failed to respond as yet, perhaps because they are unclear about which side they should be taking. For this reason especially, it is important that consumers make their feelings on this issue clear to both the retailers and record companies.

The retailers must answer to the consumer, and at the end of the day, we strongly believe that the record companies (despite their monopolistic control over the market for the work of any given artist) MUST be forced to answer to both the retailer and consumer and take full responsibility for the problems that their copy-control formats continue to create.

Conclusion

Given the lack of effectiveness and poor compatibility of these formats, it is hard to see how the record industry can continue to justify their use, and we call on EMI, BMG and the other industry players still using copy-control technology to completely abandon these highly controversial and non-standard formats in all their current and future CD releases.

We also demand that in the mean time the consumer be provided with full information on the copy-control technology in use on an item BEFORE the sale is made, whether this be online, in a printed advert, or in a shop. Providing anything less is a flagrant neglection of consumer rights.
 

Primary author: Jim Peters. Body text from this article may be quoted as the words of either Jim Peters or the UKCDR.


REFERENCES and NOTES:

[1] See this paper from Professor Felten's group at Princeton University's department of computer science. (First link is the original document in PS format, the second is a local PDF copy):

  http://crypto.stanford.edu/DRM2002/halderman_drm2002_pp.ps
  http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/links/halderman_drm2002_pp.pdf

[2] The c't CD database is German-language. Click 'Abfrage' to do a search, and enter the artist name or album title then 'Suche starten':

  http://www.heise.de/ct/cd-register/

[3] Scan through our report pages here if you wish to get an overview of the specific problems being caused:

  http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/bad/

[4] If a CD adheres to the original CD standards, then it is playable on any CD player conforming to those standards, which includes all PC CD-ROM drives. The only way to make a "copy-controlled" CD (designed not to play correctly on PCs) is to break the letter and spirit of those standards, often severely.

[5] See the Apple Knowledge Base entry #106882, and also our page on this specific form of copy-control technology. The disc that caused the most well-publicised iMac problems was Celine Dion's album "A new day has come":

  http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=106882
  http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/docs/celdion.shtml

[6] As noted on our quick summary page:

  http://ukcdr.org/issues/cd/quick/

[7] We have made several attempts to make progress through the relevant authorities. Several people both inside and outside of the campaign have contacted their local Trading Standards offices, without success. We have also been in contact with the Office of Fair Trading, again without success. It appears that we must continue to campaign on this issue without help from the authorities.


The Campaign for Digital Rights is an organisation that campaigns for fair and balanced laws for the information society. We fight for freedom of speech online, positive fair use rights for copyrighted material and for consumer rights in the digital age. For more information, please contact us or see our website: http://ukcdr.org/

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