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Oops, They Did It Again

When the Einsteins who ran the major record companies in the 1980s adopted the Phillips compact disc technology as the new media of choice, they thought they had the bull by the horns. The industry had finally found a way around the copying dilemma, and the evil cassette tape that it had fought so long and hard to banish from the earth. The record companies were sure that CDs were copy-proof; now, if some impetuous individual had the temerity to want a copy of a song on their shiny new CD, well . . . they’d have to go buy a new CD! Perfect.

Things didn’t exactly work out as planned. Along comes the personal computer and the Internet and before you know it, folks are ripping and burning and trading songs in a hot monkey-love orgy of what the record companies would call infringement, and what the rest of us would call a shared communal cultural exercise . . . or something.

But the industry, of course, hasn’t given up. One thing it seems fixated on is the idea that CDs can be copy- protected, that by inserting little digital bogeymen into the CD, folks will be unable to rip, burn and copy songs.

Most recently, BMG Sony has unleashed its latest attempt at copy protection. Apparently, if you play the new Dave Matthews CD on your CD player, everything’s fine, but if you stick it in your PC, strange things happen. You are required to agree to an end-user agreement that sets out the terms and conditions by which you will listen to Dave Matthews. You then have to download some special software that apparently configures your computer in a certain way that BMG Sony thinks is appropriate for your Dave Matthews listening experience. And then you are allowed to burn the disk exactly once. Try to burn the disk a second time and your cat blows up. Well, maybe not that, but it won’t work. And, on top of all this, the one copy you are allowed to burn is incompatible with the iPod system. So, if you want the unspeakable luxury of listening to the new Dave Matthews on your iPod, you’ll have to buy it again from iTunes.

This is how it’s supposed to work, anyway. Blogger Chris Breen of the Web site reports that there’s a small problem with Sony BMG’s latest gambit: It doesn’t work on a Mac. Despite claims to the contrary, if you stick the new Dave Matthews CD into an Apple computer, it behaves like a CD should: no terms and conditions; no burn just once limitation; no cats blowing up. Like you need another reason to buy a Mac, right?

And, as Breen points out, it’s just a matter of time—most likely a few minutes time—before some 12-year-old boy unravels the rest of the system.

He’s right. This is just the latest in a long history of the record companies trying to lock up music—they’ve failed every time and they will keep failing. Every time some ludicrous copy-protection scheme is unleashed on the world, some kid in a suburban bedroom or a college dorm codes around it. A few years ago, the industry spent millions of dollars spearheading what it called the Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI), boasting that this was going to be the killer app. After months of meetings, conferences, missed deadlines, and ridiculous boasts, SDMI released its be-all end-all copy-protection technology and dared the hacker community to break it, offering a prize to anyone who could. A few days later a college professor announced he would present a simple hack-around to SDMI’s technology at a scholarly conference. Rather than give him the prize, the music industry threatened to sue him. SDMI quietly folded shortly thereafter.

Other more recent multi-million-dollar super-secret copy-protection schemes have been undone by blackening the out rim of a disk with a Sharpie, and by holding the control button of the computer down while the disk is loading into a computer. Really.

Like someone said in 2000 during the first Napster go-round: Information doesn’t want to be free. That’s just crazy. Everybody knows information really wants to be $15.98.


—Paul Rapp


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