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The increasingly combative File-Sharing Wars have come to this: Record companies now assume you have criminal intent whether you buy CDs honestly or not. Recent releases from Foo Fighters, My Morning Jacket, Velvet Revolver and Neil Diamond have placed new, unexpected limitations on your ability to rip, store, copy and burn music from legally acquired CDs. These discs now insist on installing software onto your computer and limiting the number of copies you can burn, while also complicating the process of loading audio tracks onto some portable music players--particularly the industry-leading iPod. Fans of legitimate download sites like iTunes have swallowed such limitations without much complaint, but CDs might be a tougher sell.
While lawsuits against Internet file-sharing outposts like Grokster (and a few shots at individual Napster users) have grabbed headlines, major record labels have quietly shifted their target to casual CD copying between friends and family members. This, they now claim, is the real scourge behind the industry's prolonged slump. In contrast to pay-for-play download sites, physical CDs have always been wide open, and consumers have been able to play the discs in standard CD players, rip the audio files to their computers for desk-side listening, download the tracks into a portable music player, burn a compilation of favorite tunes and make a physical backup copy for safekeeping, all easily and cheaply.
It's that last point that unnerves the industry: With a simple CD-R drive and a pack of blank discs, consumers can physically replicate CDs for about ten cents apiece.
Record labels freely admit the changes and limitations imposed by this new software are more akin to speed bumps than padlocks: They won't completely halt ripping, burning, copying and file-sharing, but they certainly complicate and frustrate the process, even when the CD owner's motives are pure and the ends legal. The ironic result is that record companies treat their customers--those who've chosen not to acquire music via illegal but easily accessible file-sharing sites--as potential crooks.
When you pop the new Backstreet Boys disc Never Gone into a Windows-based computer, a pop-up dialogue box demands that you install special software before you can play the CD or copy it to your hard drive. The software acts as the digital rights manager, limiting the manner in which you can "rip" the CD (the term for converting songs on a CD to MP3 files) and controlling the number of copies you can burn. If you don't agree to install the software, your computer ejects the disc--unplayed and unripped.
You can block this auto-loading by either changing options in Windows or--more simply--holding down your Shift key while putting the disc in your computer. By doing this, the software installer will also be disabled, which seems to solve the problem. Unfortunately, the CD's songs will fail to register in standard applications like Windows Media Player or iTunes. Put simply, you can hear the music on the label's terms, using the label's designated media player, or not hear it at all.
The designated player's rights-management solutions are based on a concept called "sterile burning," designed to limit copying activity to that deemed reasonable by the record label. Only a limited number (typically three) copies can be made, and those "sterile" copies are reproductive dead-ends, unable to be reimported or copied. By year's end, Sony hopes that 100 percent of its new releases will carry this technology. But there are further, more troubling issues of particular frustration to iPod owners. The current crop of managed discs only allows Windows users to rip audio tracks into a specific, copy-protected format, Microsoft WMA, which the world's dominant portable media player does not read. An iPod expects tunes to be downloaded in either Apple's AAC format or the more generic MP3. But labels have thus far insisted on WMA files for their discs, leaving consumers without a simple path for porting music to their iPods.
So what are Windows-running, CD-buying, iPod-toting consumers to do? Faced with complaints, Sony has provided two solutions: Burn the protected tracks to a blank disc and then rip those songs into iTunes as MP3s, or send a letter to Apple to demand they change their rights-management system to better suit Sony's needs.
The first proposal requires users to insert the purchased CD, install software, buy a blank disc, burn the tracks on it, reinsert that CD and rip those tracks, all to copy legally acquired music to their iPods. Worse, these file conversions include two steps of audio degradation into compressed or "lossy" formats, potentially affecting sound quality. And if that's not enough maltreatment of honest customers, the second proposal conscripts music buyers as lobbyists in Sony's business issue with Apple.
Even consumers with WMA-compatible portable players (such as models from iRiver, Creative or Sanyo)--or listeners simply wishing to play the CD on their computers--may still blanch at the demands of these new discs, which require you to agree to a complex user license agreement and allow a record company to install software on your computer. And if a label won't trust you to use a legally purchased CD legally, why should you trust it to install that CD's software on your computer?
Now, to avoid these hassles, you could buy a Mac or replace Windows with Linux on your computer, as both of these systems currently ignore rights-management issues and allow you to rip protected CDs in whatever format you like. Short of leaving the Windows world, a quick Google search will provide links to readily available player and ripper shareware oblivious to rights management. [Editor's note: In particular, try Googling "EAC."]
But a simpler alternative is to vote with your pocketbook and avoid these copy-protected discs altogether. Sony's releases are typically branded "CONTENT PROTECTED" on the front covers and provide computer and operating system compatibility on the backs. If you purchase CDs online, check with your e-tailer; Amazon.com typically marks these items with "COPY PROTECTED CD" right in the title. Short of boycotting your favorite bands, you can also download from an online store that supports your portable music player, such as iTunes for iPod users.
While the debate still rages as to whether file-sharing cuts into sales or promotes artists, it's evident that current rights-management solutions interfere with buyers' expectations, leaving them to wonder why they're paying the same list price for a disc that's less functional and user-friendly than those purchased a few months ago.
Finally, the effectiveness of a digital rights-management solution (or DRM, as it is commonly called) is inversely proportional to the savvy of a CD's owner. Cory Doctorow, outreach coordinator for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, frames this nicely in a recent speech. "Here's the social reason that DRM fails: Keeping an honest user honest is like keeping a tall user tall," he says. "DRM vendors tell us that their technology is meant to be proof against average users, not organized criminal gangs like the Ukrainian pirates who stamp out millions of high-quality counterfeits. It's not meant to be proof against sophisticated college kids. It's not meant to be proof against anyone who knows how to edit her registry or hold down the Shift key at the right moment or use a search engine. At the end of the day, the user DRM is meant to defend against is the most unsophisticated and least capable among us."
In other words, DRM compels mild-mannered computer users to become more capable, which provides them both a path around the restrictions and a tempting offer to stop buying CDs altogether. Way to protect your business, guys.