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The CD Writer -
Are Copy-Protected CDs Universally Playable?

Bob Starrett

June 2001 | No one would have thought that the younger generation, those most likely to use file-swapping utilities like Napster, would pick on the likes of Charley Pride, old-school Nashville establishmentarian that he is. Well, apparently not even this Country Music Hall of Famer is safe these days, because the Napsterites have pushed Pride to desperate measures: Charley is releasing his next CD, a tribute to singer Jim Reeves, with allegedly "rip-proof" copy protection. Pride, whom MSNBC recently called "one of the last great figures from the pre-Garth, twang-box-radio glory days of country music," doesn't sound like a terribly likely Napster posting target, but sure enough, a recent Napster search showed Charley Pride well-represented among the Napster song-sharing surfeit.

There's certainly nothing morally objectionable about Pride and others taking measures like these to protect what's theirs. But the trouble with CD copy protection is that some of the protection schemes fail to take fully into consideration that audio CDs are based on a standard, specifically the Red Book by Sony and Philips. Deviation from the standard is sufficient to get your license pulled; witness Philips' recent termination of CD-R licenses held by Princo and ACME Production Industries, Hong Kong Production Industries, and China Production Industries.

The main problem with copy-protected CDs is that no matter what scheme is used to protect them, there will always be players that will not be able to play them. If you look at the universe of CD players out there, both audio and CD-ROM, you can see that they range from the no-name portable to high-priced reference players. And with CD-ROM drives, the same holds true. From the finest drives of name manufacturers to the lowly, $20 no-name CD-ROMs available everywhere today, that range is likely to come up with some ringers. Is that the fault of the player? Probably not. We all know that some players are just better quality than others, and that players themselves are not defined in the Red Book. Manufacturers can build their players as they see fit. Now, when you start messing with an audio CD on a lower level to copy-protect it, this is something that has never been anticipated by the player manufacturer. Nor should they have to anticipate anything that does not follow the Red Book specification, and nor should they have to build around every copy protection scheme that pops up.

Record companies are in for a big surprise if they think they can test a few or even all current players and certify that a copy-protected disc is ready for release to the public. If I buy Charley's disc, I want it to play not only on my DVD player, but my CD player, my portables, and yes, all my CD-ROM drives, including my pride and joy, a CM 100, one of the first CD-ROM drives produced by Philips.

I have seen little CD "boom-boxes" on sale recently for as little as $19.99. Does this boombox contain the finest optical components? Has it been tested with a wide variety of discs, both normal and copy-protected? If it had been, you couldn't buy it for $19.99. And for those who would reply, "What do you expect for 19.99?" I go back to my younger days when I worked as a motorcycle mechanic for an eccentric, though wise, old Greek man named Jimmy. One day he saw us running down some old hunk of junk that some customer had brought in, battered and beaten, looking far different from the shiny new motorcycles on the showroom floor. And he was furious at us. He said, "Next time you are down on your luck, and that is the only transportation that you can afford, think about what you are doing. To that customer, beaten and battered and ugly as that bike is, it is probably his only transportation, all he can afford. It may even be his pride and joy. Think about it, boys."

Of course, he was right. When someone gives her child a $19.99 CD player for his birthday because it was all she could afford, that child, whose $19.99 box might be his pride and joy, has as much right to expect that that shiny new machine, lowly as it is, will play any CD he inserts in it. So if any of these copy protection schemes prevent that child from playing Charley Pride or anything else, the fault is not with the drive, the fault lies with overweening executives of the record companies, who naturally assume that everyone is a pirate and every CD sold is in danger of being ripped to a hard drive and distributed on the 'net. So, to protect themselves from the sins of the few, they have committed the cardinal sin of standards-based media: they've created out-of-spec discs that deny their contents to the consumers who buy them.

When Charley Pride's agent calls him to tell him that his CD is not selling because there is rumor floating about that it won't play on some CD players, he is likely to have a quick revelation about the economics of paranoia. As for any other artist or company who sees CD copy protection as a solution to piracy, let them contemplate the words of Michael Wigglesworth in his poem, "Vanity of Vanities":

For as the Sun doth blind the gazer's eyes,

That for a time they nought discern aright:

So Honour doth befool and blind the Wise,

And their own Lustre 'reaves them of their sight.

Bob Starrett (bobs@cdpage.com) is a contributing editor for EMedia Magazine and co-columnist for THE CD WRITER, and an independent consultant based in Denver, Colorado. He is the co-author, with EMedia Magazine contributor Josh McDaniel, of The Little CD Audio Recording Book, published by Peachpit Press.

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