A Universal CD Problem?

Recent moves by record labels to add restricted-use technology to their compact disc releases has raised the ire of many a consumer, leading some to call for boycotts or worse (see this week's Soapbox). Late last year the National Association of Recording Merchandisers (NARM) issued a statement saying that the major labels have gone too far in restricting consumers' "fair use" of copyrighted material.

In spite of the gathering storm, Universal Music Group has announced its intention to add restricted-use technology to all of its releases by mid-2002, while other labels have been testing the waters with varying success. Sony has confirmed that over 11 million discs using its key2audio system have been released by several labels into Europe so far. As a result, Philips, one of the originators of CD technology, began making noise in January that the restricted-use discs do not meet the Red Book standards for a CD and should not use the Compact Disc logo.

Audio equipment manufacturers may also have cause for concern, and some have joined Philips in the fight to prevent labels from calling the altered discs "CDs." In a paper recently presented to the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), Gary Warzin, president & CEO of Audiophile Systems (distributors of Arcam, dCS, Acoustic Energy, Verity Audio, Nagra, and Nottingham), outlined the potential problems for manufacturers of audio equipment resulting from the release of restricted use CDs into the marketplace. Warzin comments, "Due to the scope of Universal's global operation (over $6 billion in annual revenues), the consequences of their decision have a significant adverse impact on both consumers and the manufacturers that produce devices designed to play compact discs."

Warzin explains that with the growing trend he sees of consumers purchasing multi-use players such as DVD players and/or CD-ROM drives as their primary CD playback devices, "Universal's actions, if left unchallenged, could leave these consumers without access to a substantial percentage of the world's music discs. According to Universal, these new discs will not play on many devices that were designed to play industry-standard Red Book Compact Discs. These devices include most DVD players, Macintosh or other computers not running recent versions of the Microsoft Windows operating system, video game consoles, and even some CD players!"

Warzin says this could ultimately result in headaches for manufacturers of CD playback equipment. "Since the manner in which Universal is marketing these copy-protected discs will likely lead consumers to confuse these discs with industry standard Red Book CDs, there is a significant probability that many consumers will attribute a device's inability to play these discs as a fault with the player rather than as a fault with the disc."

Confused consumers may hesitate to purchase multi-purpose players "fearing they will be incompatible with a large portion of available music content," says Warzin. "In addition, manufacturers wishing to maintain customer loyalty and a competitive position in the marketplace will be forced to bear the R&D costs of developing a solution to these playability issues as well as the costs involved in modifying players already in the field."

In his "Examination of the Universal Music Group Copy Protection Scheme," Warzin outlines what he terms the three "deceptive practices" of the label. He also asks, "Is this copy protection or legal maneuvering?" and expanding on this question wonders, "Is it possible that Universal's intent in using this 'copy protection' is not to physically protect the content on the disc, but to obtain the legal advantages afforded by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act as opposed to conventional copyright law?"

According to Warzin, the "deceptive practices" include lack of clear labeling indicating that the restricted discs are not legitimate CDs, promising CD-quality sound "but delivering an inferior product," and the issue of computer users paying for CD-quality sound but "unknowingly receiving grossly inferior compressed MP3 versions of the music."

Warzin offers a suggestion for how the discs should be labeled: "THIS IS NOT AN AUDIO COMPACT DISC. While it has been designed to play in most standard audio CD players and in some computers running a recent Windows operating system, it will not play in most DVD players, Macintosh computers, and many other devices commonly used to play compact discs. If you experience playback problems with this disc, it is not the fault of your playback component. Full responsibility rests with Universal Music Group and you should return this disc for a refund."

Of primary concern for audiophiles is what sonic penalties the restricted-use technology impose on a recording. Warzin points out that when audiophiles pay normal CD prices for discs, it seems fair to assume they would expect the disc to contain relatively error-free 16-bit, 44.1kHz samples-per-second data.

"Our analysis of Universal's copy-protected disc shows the intentional injection of errors. We assume these 'errors' are either designed to confuse some playback devices or are part of some watermarking scheme. Testing the disc with a professional Sony CDL-40 Error Detector, we routinely (approximately every six seconds) saw 'correctable' error rates in the triple digits. For comparison purposes, a quality CD rarely displays any errors. A damaged CD produces occasional errors measured in either single or double digits. On the Universal disc these large bursts of correctable errors frequently resulted in errors flagged by the CDL-40 as 'uncorrectable.'

"The audible result of these errors would be dependent on the consumer's particular playback device. At best it would cause the error correction to work harder than normal, possibly reducing its effectiveness when called upon to handle real errors caused by fingerprints and/or scratches. A more likely result, particularly on the errors flagged as uncorrectable, would be the insertion of interpolated data to hide the error from the ears of the user. Arguing that most listeners would not notice this anomaly would be akin to saying that stealing a dollar out of the till isn't a crime if the store proprietor doesn't notice it's missing. The customer paid for the entire musical performance, and 'bits' (literally) of it are missing."

In the end, Warzin asserts that both Universal's protection scheme and Sony's key2audio system are easily circumvented and may actually be achieving the opposite of the desired effect.

He says he was able to crack both systems within a short period of time. "With no prior knowledge of the protection scheme employed and with no expertise in circumventing copy protection, I was able to produce a CD-R copy within an hour of purchasing a protected Universal disc at a local record store," Warzin states. "This CD-R copy was playable on a conventional CD player as well as on a DVD player that was incapable of playing the original copy-protected disc. All that was required to accomplish this was a readily available CD copy utility capable of making bit-for-bit copies. Armed with this CD-R copy it was now possible to make adequate, but admittedly not perfect, MP3 files.

"With some additional experimentation, I was able, by the end of the following day, to produce perfect MP3 files directly from the original disc without the use of any specialized software utilities. All that was required was a bit of trial and error tweaking of the settings in the popular (and free) MusicMatch MP3 Jukebox software and 39¢ worth of supplies available at any office supply store. The resultant MP3 files were, by the way, dramatically superior to those supplied by Universal for playback by unsuspecting computer users."

As Warzin points out, "It could be argued that Universal's copy protection would actually encourage people to feel justified in pirating their content. People who were previously quite happy buying a CD, using it in their car, in their home DVD player, and transferring the content to their portable MP3 player now find themselves significantly inconvenienced. If it now requires extra effort to do this (research on the Internet, the download of utilities, etc), they might feel justified in thinking: 'Screw Universal. If that's how they want to treat paying customers, I'll just download the pirated MP3 files for free.'"

Warzin emphasizes that he supports the rights of the record companies to protect their intellectual property, but has "serious concerns" regarding the labels' current approach to protecting their discs from pirates. "So it's the same old story. It only inconveniences legitimate users and doesn't stop someone from posting files to the Internet."