Music industry hears the public

Piracy: Companies strike a compromise by insisting on security while allowing customers easier access to files.

October 23, 2003|By Hiawatha Bray | Hiawatha Bray,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

A recent top story on the music-piracy wars featured another humiliating setback for the music industry - a new antipiracy technology that doesn't work.

That's how the headlines read. We journalists have a knack for missing the point.

That's what happened in the recent flurry of stories about SunnComm Technologies Inc. SunnComm's MediaMax CD-3 system is designed for use on music CDs, to set limits on the number of times a user can copy the music. But a Princeton University graduate student, John Alexander Halderman, found that anybody could beat the system by turning off the "CD autorun" feature in Microsoft's Windows operating system, or by just holding down the shift key when loading a music CD.

SunnComm became an Internet laughingstock, and the enraged chief executive officer, Peter Jacobs, threatened to sue Halderman for spreading false information about MediaMax.

To Jacobs' credit, he came to his senses within hours and retracted his threats. Music industry critics have celebrated all this as a famous victory. So they've been too busy to consider what's really going on.

Here's a clue. Both SunnComm and the record company BMG, which uses the SunnComm system, said Halderman's discovery wasn't news to them. Both firms were well aware that their antipiracy system could easily be bypassed. SunnComm president Bill Whitmore said they were angry at Halderman for describing their product as "irreparably flawed." In reality, said Whitmore, MediaMax does exactly what it was designed to do.

It sounds like doublespeak. A system that's supposed to stop people from making illegal music files can easily be bypassed, allowing the user to make all the copies he wants - yet it still works? That's utterly goofy.

Or is it? A similar system seems to work fine for the company that has sold more music over the Internet than anybody else: Apple Computer Inc.

Everyone knows about Apple's iTunes Music Store, where users of the company's Mac computers can buy pop songs for 99 cents apiece. But to persuade music companies to make their tunes available for sale, Apple had to devise a way to prevent customers from redistributing free copies of downloaded files all over the Internet.

The company chose a system called FairPlay. Instead of offering music in the standard MP3 format, all files are encoded in an alternative format called AAC. Outside of Apple's own iPod music players, few portable devices can play AAC files. In addition, each file has built-in software to limit a purchaser's replay rights. You can listen to your tunes on no more than three computers. Install the files on a fourth, and they won't play.

With all these restrictions, why are so many people happy to buy from iTunes? Because there's a loophole. At the push of a button, you can burn all of your iTunes onto a CD, in the standard CD audio format. This disk will play in any standard CD player or computer. More important, you can rip it into MP3 files, just as you would with a store-bought CD. Apple says that doing so results in poor sound quality, but we've tried it, and the results are good enough for casual listening.

In short, the antipiracy features in iTunes are nearly as easy to bypass as SunnComm's. Yet nobody is calling iTunes "irreparably flawed." As a matter of fact, other music-selling sites on the Internet have adopted a similar approach - building security into the download but letting users burn the files onto "insecure" music CDs.

Maybe the music industry has finally figured it out. Unless consumers are forced to buy computers that will not copy CDs, it's impossible to completely eliminate music piracy. Instead, the industry might be designing systems that seek to nudge people toward honesty, rather than dragging them in chains toward the path of righteousness.

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