Music City Records to Issue "Copy-protected" CD

More than a year after BMG Germany had to recall a massive shipment of "copy-proof" CDs, an American record label is preparing to attempt a similar experiment. In April, Nashville independent label Music City Records will issue Charley Pride: A Tribute to Jim Reeves, copy protection included.

Mastered using CD-protection software developed by SunComm of Phoenix, AZ, Pride's new recording will hit the streets in early May. Its music tracks won't show up on any file-sharing systems, CD-ROMs, or MP3 players, according to Music City's Bob Heatherly, because no one will be able to copy it, at least not in the digital domain.

Like other copy-prevention schemes, SunComm's technology reportedly exploits differences between the "Red Book" standard for music CDs, formulated by Sony and Philips in 1980, and the "Yellow Book" standard for CD-ROMs and the "Orange Book" standard for CD-RWs, which were formulated later. Copy-protection research is an ongoing serious effort by the music industry, which, despite legal victories over free music services like Napster and, has found it impossible to contain the "piracy" epidemic.

Although nobody has ever presented irrefutable proof that copying in any form causes a loss of income for the music industry, its executives assume—almost as an article of faith—that copying is the cause of all their misery. "The CD is the root of all of our problems with the Net," EMI vice president Jay Samit told Charles C. Mann of "If CDs were as hard to copy as DVDs or VHS tapes or even books, we would not be going through anything like what we're going through now with Napster or Gnutella."

The trouble with copy-protected CDs is that they don't play in every machine they are put in. In Germany last year, BMG issued Razorblade Romance by the Finnish rock group HIM, only to find that music fans were returning the discs with complaints that they wouldn't play. Tel Aviv's Midbar Technologies, which developed the copy-protection scheme, had reportedly tested it successfully on every type of CD player available at the time. Buyers found otherwise, and BMG had to recall 100,000 discs.

Heatherly believes that won't be the case with A Tribute to Jim Reeves. SunComm's system passed every test he put it through. "These technologies will allow media companies to distribute their content on disk . . . A shrink-wrapped CD or DVD purchased off-the-shelf which was manufactured using this technology cannot be 'burned' onto another disk or copied to other storage media. Internet content down-loaded to a computer disk, once burned to a CD, cannot be re-copied to another disk or other storage media," SunComm CEO Peter H. Jacobs says of his company's technology.

Pride was miffed when he discovered his older recordings on Napster, Heatherly said, and he insisted on finding some way to prevent that from happening with the new one. The two of them decided SunComm's technology offered a good enough guarantee against piracy to use it for the new release.

With the Pride disc, Music City Records will momentarily take the lead in the industry's experimentation with copy protection. None of it, however, will prevent people from feeding the analog output of their CD players into the sound cards on their computers and making all the copies they want, a fact apparently little noticed in the present atmosphere of digital hysteria.

[From the information in the Salon article, it also looks like the copy protection is only effective when a computer's internal CD-ROM drive is used to rip CDs. Using a traditional CD transport to feed an S/PDIF datastream to a suitable PC soundcard, like the CardDeluxe or RME Digi96/8 Pro, appears to bypass the protection. However, the CD will then have to be copied manually, the ripping software not being able to control the external transport.—John Atkinson]