Every New CD to be Restricted?

Let's try to imagine the ideal music-buying landscape from a record company's point of view. As distasteful as this may seem to an ever-growing legion of unhappy audiophiles and music fans, it can go a long way towards explaining why the major labels appear to suddenly be at war with their customers.

They remember a time, before the Internet and MP3, before the very first CD recorder even, when they were able to hobble the slightest hint of a consumer digital recording format, such as DAT, with a copy restriction system like SCMS. With standards for consumer DAT tied up in committees and using legal threats, enough time passed before a single consumer DAT machine could be released that the market never even caught a spark—not unlike the current situation with DVD-Audio.

But the labels never planned on computers being used as digital audio recording, playback, and file-sharing devices by consumers. They were completely blindsided by the overnight success of CD burners, MP3, Napster, and all of the attendant software that transformed a CD from a solid chunk of commerce into something as slippery as a stream of digital audio quicksilver. They also didn't understand the computer and Internet business and rarely mixed with—let alone had the ability to intimidate—the companies driving these markets.

Better late than never. After a crash course in the realities of free-flowing digital audio data, Big Music is now convinced that with a few judicious applications of playback restriction technology, they can put the digital audio genie back into the restricted-use bottle. But can they do it without further alienating their key customers, who are still bitter from having had Napster yanked from their paws?

It won't be easy, and already the labels have seen their share of setbacks. But it would now appear that they have no intention of abandoning their efforts to restrict every last CD. Last week, at a shareholders' meeting, Vivendi Universal revealed that its Universal Music Group, the world's largest record company, plans in October to start issuing CDs that will be encoded to restrict their contents' being copied either onto a computer or onto CDR.

But this is just the beginning. According to Vivendi's Edgar Bronfman, his company is hoping to have all of Universal's CDs encoded with restriction software by the spring of 2002. "With the extent of piracy and the extent of CD (copying) that's going on," he says, "we have no choice but to protect our artists and our rights holders."

Last week also brought news that the latest Michael Jackson single from Sony Music Entertainment, "You Rock My World," will be restricted for its UK release, although the company says that it has no plans to encode the US release as of yet. In a statement, the label said, "We continue to test available copy protection technologies, and our goal is to implement copy protection on a broader basis to deter digital piracy." Warner Music Group and BMG are also now on record as stating that they are looking into playback and copy restriction technologies for their upcoming releases.

According to a recent CNET article, some labels are experimenting with putting two audio files onto a CD: one being the restricted-use full-bandwidth version of the album—which will not be able to be ripped by a computer—and the other a compressed version for restricted playback on a computer. The article points out that Macrovision and SunnComm are working on using Microsoft's latest Windows Media Audio digital format for the compressed audio file, which could place WMA ahead of MP3 virtually overnight as the new portable audio standard.

But not so fast, says Jupiter Research analyst Aram Sinnreich. "I think the reality here is that none of these (CD copy protection) techniques is going to be successful in the long term. They're fraught with technical difficulties, and even if [the companies] surmount those, they would meet with a severe consumer backlash."

Perhaps the inevitable consumer backlash has already begun. In a recent poll, Stereophile readers expressed their outrage over modified CDs while the release of a restricted Charley Pride disc has quickly drawn a lawsuit. Online mailing lists and chat rooms have been filled with calls for boycotts of record companies, with a mass leafleting campaign being planned across the UK on October 6 by members of the UK Campaign for Digital Rights.

Jim Peters, one of the organizers of the UK CDR, says, "One of the most underhanded things in this situation is that these new, modified CD formats are being introduced secretly, without the public's knowledge." He is calling for "large red warning labels" to indicate which discs are restricted.

Peters also reveals that he hasn't forgotten audiophile victims of the labels' latest crusade. "The most unfortunate thing for hi-fi buffs is that audio quality is no longer a primary motivation for the media distributors. They have already shown that they are quite willing to sacrifice the purity of audio quality, and even the reliability of CD media, in order to install copy protection mechanisms."

This, of course, is something we've suspected all along.