Locked And Blocked

Conflict: Efforts to end CD copying and online file-sharing have left some buyers unable to play music on their computers and other devices.

January 10, 2002|By Michael Stroh | Michael Stroh,SUN STAFF

Last month Erik Fredricks unwrapped a copy of More Fast and Furious, a new soundtrack from the movie The Fast and the Furious, and popped the CD into his boombox. This is what he heard:

Silence. The disc, he said, "just spun and spun."

Nor did he hear anything in his Sony PlayStation 2, one of the video game consoles that doubles as a CD player. Ditto for his two home computers, on which Fredricks, a 29-year-old furniture store manager in Acworth, Ga., prefers to listen to his music collection.

The sound of silence is a nuisance music lovers might hear more often as the record industry, in its battle against digital bootlegging, takes the fight to the home front: your CD collection.

More Fast and Furious, released last month by Universal Music Group, is the first copy-protected CD from a major label. Like an electronic combination lock, the technology allows companies to control how and where consumers can play their tunes. As a result, the CD is fast becoming a flash point in a growing legal debate over how far music labels can go to protect their intellectual property.

For example, a black sticker on the back of the new Universal CD states that the music is "designed to play in standard audio CD players and in computers running a Windows Operating System."

The new copy-protection technology is designed to prevent consumers from copying, or "ripping," songs off their CDs onto their computers, which the industry argues is the first step in a song's journey to illegal online song-swapping services such as Kazaa or Morpheus.

But consumers who increasingly use portable digital MP3 players, computers, DVD players and other audio devices to play their tunes are upset that they might have to change their listening habits.

"I hate it," said Terrence Comella, 19, a George Mason University sophomore who lives in Springfield, Va. "I listen to music five times as much on my computer as I do on any stereo."

"It's basically punishing the consumer for something they're not doing wrong," said Fredricks, who gave up on the More Fast and Furious CD. "It's the only industry I can think of that is at war with its consumers and still surviving."

The copy-protection technology used by Universal is Cactus Data Shield, made by Midbar Tech.

Like many firms involved in encryption, Midbar is reluctant to reveal how Cactus Data Shield works. But documents filed with the U.S. Patent Office by these companies offer insight into how such technology works.

One technique is to insert small digital errors onto the disc. The inaudible errors throw off sensitive CD-ROM drives in computers and game machines, rendering the discs unplayable on them.

Standard audio CD drives typically ignore the errors. In reality, things don't always work as planned, as BMG found last year after it released a copy-protected version of Natalie Imbruglia's White Lilies Island in Germany.

When the disc failed to play on many standard CD and DVD players, Germans angrily demanded refunds. But informal tests by consumers posted on Fat Chuck's (www.fatchucks.com), one of several Web sites devoted to copy-protected disc sightings, shows the electronic lock system is erratic: Sometimes it works, sometimes not. Universal has sent letters to retailers authorizing returns of opened More Fast and Furious discs, reversing industry policy.

Efforts to prevent consumers from duping discs have caught the eye of lawyers and lawmakers.

Last week, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat, sent a letter to the recording industry's trade association questioning whether the copy-protection technology violated consumers' "fair use" right to make personal copies guaranteed under U.S. copyright law. Legislators on Capitol Hill have signaled that they might hold hearings on the music industry and copy protection efforts.

A California woman sued independent label Music City Records in September over a copy-protected Charlie Pride CD, which the woman claimed failed to include a disclaimer telling her it wouldn't play on her computer.

Because the legal terrain is so gray, some industry watchers are expecting copy protection to spark more legal battles.

The 1992 Audio Home Recording Act, which lays out what consumers can and can't do with copyrighted music, says only that nobody can sue you for making a copy for personal use. Nowhere does it explicitly state that music labels have an obligation to make something copy-able, said Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Also, the law addresses only audio tapes and digital devices such as DAT and minidisk players. Computers, von Lohmann noted, are not covered under it.

Many intellectual property experts argue that making personal digital copies on one's home computer probably falls within copyright law's "fair use" provision. Still, von Lohmann says, no court has directly addressed that question.

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