Copycode: Diminishing DAT

How can you tell when a politician is lying? His lips move. How can you tell when a recording system is perfect? CBS tries to outlaw it.

That is exactly what was happening in Washington in April through June. The American record industry is so horrified at the prospect of a "perfect" home-recording medium—the new DAT system—that they are doing their best to legislate it out of existence. Or, at least, to de-fang it. Believing their own propaganda about "Perfect Sound Forever," they are afraid the new DAT system which the Japanese are poised to unleash in the US will allow their copyrighted recordings to be illegally duplicated so faithfully as to be indistinguishable from the originals. Their proposed solution? Find a means for copy-protecting their recordings, the way computer software is often protected.

To this end, CBS Labs has devised an ingenious system, involving the use of an IC chip in the recorder which regularly scans the signal: if it senses an anticopy code on the recording, it shuts down the recorder's record function for 30s. The "encoding" consists of a deep, narrow, frequency-response notch centered at 3840Hz, which CBS has assured everyone is "totally inaudible" (footnote 1). So enchanted were they with their ingenuity, and so endowed with countless lobbying dollars, that they succeeded in getting two bills before Congress that would mandate the inclusion of the "spoiler" chip in every DAT unit brought into the US, record companies then marking all their CDs by omitting the musical notes around 3840Hz (footnote 2).

As I write this, it looks as if those bills, which would have put an end to most home taping in the US, are dying in Committee—partly, I am told, because even the Committee members could hear the damage done to the sound by the encoding. (For a sample of Stereophile's behind-the-scenes politicking, see my letter at the end of this article.) But you can be confident that our poor, struggling record industry (which racked up bigger profits in 1985 and '86 than ever before in the history of the universe) is not about to give up so easily. Because, you see, they are convinced they are losing millions of dollars a year to citizen bootleggers.

The Congressional record for February 5, 1987, in which Senators Albert Gore and Pete Wilson introduced the "DAT Bill," contained several references to the "perfect copies" of which DAT is supposed to be capable. This, I believe, is irrelevant. Most illegal copying is done to obtain the music; the sound is very much secondary, and the superior sound of DAT is unlikely to have any impact whatsoever on the amount of such copying that is done. There is also a statement therein to the effect that illegal home copying is costing record companies "about one third" of the revenues they are entitled to. I don't know where the authors of the bill ever came up with that figure, but I think they would have a very hard time documenting it.

The vast majority of illegal copying is done by teenagers for their friends, and by record buyers of all ages who want customized cassettes for the car. Most kids, like most adults, would prefer to own a legitimate copy of an album than a dub. Owning is an essential part of the consumer mystique, and owning the music is only half of the motive for buying a record. Owning the record is the other half. (In addition, teens have also found that blank cassettes which cost much less than an LP have a tendency to get eaten by cassette players, so they prefer to have the record as insurance against that eventuality.)

Besides, the real thing looks gaudier, sometimes comes with jacket notes for the benefit of those who learned to read, and buyers know it sounds better than a dub would, even if they can't hear the difference. But the average teen, unlike the average record-company executive who is pointing the finger at him and yelling Thief!, has limited disposable income. He simply cannot afford to buy all the $6.98 records he wants, but he can often cough up $1.98 for a blank cassette. If he can't copy to that from a friend's LP or CD, he will simply do without that music. He won't start collectively feeding millions more dollars into the record manufacturers' swollen coffers, because he can't. The money just isn't there. Our record industry's pot of gold is at the end of a rainbow!

Another very common practice, among both adults and kids, is the copying of one's own CDs or LPs onto cassette for use in the car. Obviously, the record companies would like to see everyone buy a CD for the living room, an LP for the family room, and a cassette for the car, but people don't work that way. Except for those CD fanatics who are replacing their analog discs with CDs as fast as they come out, no one will buy the same recording in two formats. If they cannot copy, they will buy one recording in the format which most meets their needs, and that's all they will buy. The money may be there to buy duplicate copies in more than one format, but it won't be spent that way. It will be spent on a different record.

Perhaps the question here is whether or not buying a recording makes you the owner of that copy of a musical performance or merely a renter. If you own it, you should be entitled to copy it for any personal use, just as you are allowed by law to copy a book you have purchased. If you are merely renting the use of it, you should be required to sign, with the purchase of any record, an unenforceable exclusive-use agreement such as is provided with many computer programs.

This industry paranoia has gone entirely too far, and may already have done irreparable damage to the new DAT format's introduction. The new system's proponents have yielded to pressure from the CD forces, primarily Philips, to the extent of omitting from DAT machines the ability to record at the CD sampling rate of 44.1kHz. The reason is obvious: to prevent direct digital copying from CDs to produce truly perfect illegal copies. But CDs themselves can be copy-protected, without in any way impairing their sound, simply by the setting of a PQ-subcode data flag on them; digital copying of flagged discs would be impossible for the average user anyway. But so concerned are the record companies about digital copying, that many don't even bother to copy-protect their CDs! They'd rather see the DAT machines hobbled.

This lack of CD-standard DAT recording is mindlessly stupid, particularly in view of Sony's ongoing claim that DAT is the ideal system for professional users. In fact, professional audio people have been drooling in anticipation of DAT because it can do so many of the things they need to be able to do, like automated editing by SMPTE time code. Certainly, small record companies which had hoped DAT would allow them to start mastering CDs without hocking the cathedral are going to be very much put off by the system's inability to record in CD format. Yes, bit converters are available, but they are said to degrade the signal about as much as an A/D or D/A conversion. So much for the purity of digital mastering!

There is no reason whatsoever why consumer DAT machines could not be made to allow sampling at 44.1kHz when recording analog sources, but not when recording digital sources. Perhaps, though, the real concern of the major record companies is that DAT may bring about the same kind of competition that analog tape did in the early 1950s, when anyone with a professional deck and a few microphones could found a record company.

DAT is going to have a hard enough time getting off the ground even without its non-CD-format handicap. There is no prerecorded software available for it, and while there is a technology for high-speed production copying—using contact printing at a temperature above the target tape's Curie point—there is not as yet the hardware for doing so. As of now, DAT copying can only be done in real-time, which would price albums high enough to guarantee widespread home copying. But on the hand, there will be very few DAT machines in the marketplace for the foreseeable future to do that copying on, because they are going to be too expensive for the average buyer to consider, and few will consider any deck for which little prerecorded software is available.

Sony anticipates that the price of a high-speed-duplicated DAT cassette will not be high, suggesting that the most effective means of all for discouraging bootlegging: keeping the consumer cost low enough to make illegal copying uneconomical. If a prerecorded DAT cassette or a CD was only 2 bucks more than a blank cassette, the whole copying question would go out the window—as long as that $2 difference was not achieved by legislating a $25-per-unit price for the blank one. But then, maybe that's the gist of the next DAT bill to be presented to Congress.

As I see it, the record industry is behaving like a spoiled-rotten brat: "Gimme, gimme, it's all mine!!" It is also trying very hard to preserve an idyllic past which no longer exists. In a world where the means for high-fidelity copying of information is ubiquitous, publishers are just going to have to get used to thinking about revenue loss through private copyright violation as part of the price of doing business, like the overhead a restaurant writes off to cover breakage of crockery.

If the industry feels their profits on total record sales of over 300 million units are too little, let them up their prices to boost their gross, or lower their prices to encourage more people to buy their products. That's what any other industry would do, instead of running crying to our lawmakers to protect them from the realities of the marketplace. But most of all, let them stop trying to legislate away advances in audio technology, at a time when perfection may be just around the corner.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: The record industry is not unanimous on this matter. According to Billboard of June 6 1987, Nimbus and Harmonia Mundi have no intention of spoiling their recordings with CBs's Copycode notch, and I have been told by representatives for Angel and Telarc that they also will refuse to label their CDs with the notch.