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the cd writer

Nature Takes Its Course: MP3-Capable DVD Players

Robert A. Starrett

May 2000 | What is Apex Digital and why is its latest product creating such a stir? Apex itself is a little hard to get a handle on. It has offices in Ontario, California, but is apparently based in China. So what product does this little known company produce? For starters, a DVD player--the Apex Digital 600A DVD--that can be bought for $149, which makes it about $20 cheaper than any other DVD player that I have seen. More to the point, it has the feature that I have been expecting from the major electronics manufacturers for some time.

So what's it got? To start with, the Apex Digital 600A is a great DVD player--lots of features and it works flawlessly. Then, add this, which only a few brands and models of DVD players are capable of: It plays audio CD-R, no problem. What's more, it plays audio CD-RW--mere window dressing, you say. But here's the real trick: record a hundred MP3s to CD-R or CD-RW, pop in the disc, and it plays that too, no problem.

MP3 capability in CD-Audio and DVD players is a natural extension of an already multifunction consumer electronics product. Politics and lawsuits aside, MP3 is not going away. No matter how many dollars the RIAA throws at lawyers, and no matter how many dollars others throw at "secure" formats like Liquid Audio, A2B, SDMI WMF, and others, now and in the future MP3 will survive. Why? Because, like CD-ROM, it is universally available and accessible. It is also university-available, but that is another story altogether.

When everybody has something, whether it be hardware like a CD-ROM drive, a floppy drive, or a modem; or software, like a program that can read a universal file format like ASCII, that something is what is going to be used for computer file exchange. There is just no getting around it--digital delivery of music over the Internet is the future. And we all have the capability to play MP3 files on our computer, assuming that we download one of the many free players that are available all over the Web.

the Lettermen return: enter CEMA and the RIAA

Soon, many people will have the ability to play CD-ROMs loaded with MP3 files on standard audio and DVD devices like the Apex. Now, I have not heard any rumblings from the RIAA or other record industry groups about how CD players that play MP3s make their manufacturers contributory copyright infringers because they can play those files (and I hate to give them the idea). Perhaps this is because to date, the stable of MP3-capable CD players has been small, consisting mostly of innovative little companies like Vertical Horizons, NetDrives, and others who saw the possibilities in MP3/CD players and took the initiative to produce them. And we must give them credit for doing so.

Unfortunately, I am afraid that when the major electronics manufacturers release MP3-capable CD-Audio and DVD drives, these pioneers will lose their market edge. On the mass consumer level, the major members of CEMA will ultimately dominate this market. But don't look for the RIAA to file on this one. The prospect of taking on Sony, Yamaha, Kenwood, Aiwa, Pioneer, Panasonic, et al., is just a little too frightening, just like it was when the RIAA had delusions of requiring that the makers of computer CD recorders fit them with SCMS circuitry or make them refuse to copy audio discs altogether.

precedent will prevail

Did the makers of audio CD players incorporate circuitry that could detect a CD-R disc and refuse to play it because CD-R can be used to make illegal copies of CD audio discs? They did not. It was by design and some chance that CD-Recordable had the right characteristics to be able to be read by existing CD-Audio players. The manufacturers of these players surely could have banned CD-R from their machines had they wanted to. Why didn't they? Likely, because they knew that CD-R compilations, while they can be illegitimate, are most times designed and used for fair use-protected purposes, and to refuse to play such legal and popular orbs would surely reduce CD player sales. Is there anything illegal or unethical or immoral about a CD-R compilation? Of course not. Is there anything illegal, unethical, or immoral about a CD-ROM that contains MP3 files, whether that disc is pressed, recordable, or rewritable? Of course not. Is there any thing illegal or immoral about the MP3 file format? Of course not.

The logic of pursuing the legal restriction of technology because it has the capability of being used in an illegal manner does not hold up under judicial scrutiny. Again, I cite the Supreme Court's decision in Sony versus Universal Pictures, in which the court decided that VCR machines did not infringe copyright just because they could be used to make a tape that might violate a copyright. The court found that as long as the VCR was capable of substantial non-infringing uses, it did not contributorily infringe on copyright.

The same rule applies here, and with Apex, NetDrives, and Vertical Horizons in the early lead, we should soon see MP3-capable CD-Audio and DVD players from all the major electronics manufacturers. But for speed to market and price, Apex has already pulled a coup.

Robert A. Starrett is a contributing editor for EMedia, The CD-R Writer columnist, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author of of CD-ROM Professional's CD-Recordable Handbook.

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