Copy-Protecting CDs Begins

In what is intended to have the biggest impact yet on the thriving "rip, mix, burn" lifestyle, Macrovision has revealed that several record labels have been secretly putting its copy protection system onto new CD releases since around March of this year (see previous report). The process, called SafeAudio, is a Macrovision registered trademark and is intended to prevent the copying of CDs, or tracks from CDs, onto CD-R discs and computer hard drives. The technology was developed jointly by Macrovision and TTR Technologies.

While it is not intended to completely prevent copying, Macrovision claims that the SafeAudio process adds a special type of distortion (see below) to the CD during the mastering process at CD manufacturing facilities, which then reveals itself as periodic "clicks and pops" in the digital copy. The company also announced July 10, that it has entered into agreements with Toolex, Eclipse, DCA, and DaTARIUS to develop the tools necessary for mastering and testing SafeAudio-encrypted discs worldwide.

Macrovision's Brian McPhail says, "As a result of these new partnerships with the key mastering and test equipment providers, music labels and publishers will find that they can replicate and distribute SafeAudio-protected CDs in facilities throughout the world. Our strategy in 2001 has been to focus on building the worldwide infrastructure to support rapid deployment of SafeAudio, as soon as the labels and publishers give the green light on SafeAudio."

TTR's patents reveal that in the SafeAudio system, "grossly erroneous values," or bursts of digital noise, are added to the signal, forcing a regular CD player, whose error correction can't usually handle such extreme digital hash, to cover the gaps of bad data with data from before and after where the distortion occurs. But when copying the audio file to another device, like a PC's hard disc, the extreme digital values are said to overwhelm the computer's ability to transfer the data properly, leaving annoying noises in place of music.

Of paramount concern to audiophiles will be whether or not the process can be detected with careful listening as the CD player struggles to fill in the missing gaps. Macrovision only says that "the SafeAudio solution meets the combined objectives of playability (where the original audio content can be heard with no discernable reduction in audio quality) and effectiveness (where a satisfactory level of copy protection is provided). Macrovision is supporting ongoing evaluation and test programs with several major music labels."

Which labels are involved in the testing is still a mystery since the company cites non-disclosure agreements when asked to reveal specific names and CDs. Macrovision's Miao Chang says that "they [the labels] don't want to influence the listener's potential experience." Macrovision claims that during the last several months of testing on an unsuspecting public, there have been no significant reports of complaints from consumers, even though, the company reports, one title has so far seen sales in excess of 100,000 units.

In addition to the added audio distortion, what is troubling for music fans is that the process prevents copying audio files for personal uses such as "mix" CDs, hard-drive or PC based music systems, and conversion and transfer of audio files to portable music devices such as MP3 players. According to the Audio Home Recording Act, consumers cannot be sued by copyright holders for creating personal use copies of legally procured music, but it is unclear whether the right to make copies is itself protected. As GartnerG2 analyst P.J. McNealy, quoted at News.com, puts it, "There might be consumer expectations here, but there is no legal right."

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