Attack Massive Protection

Copy-protected disks became harder and harder to avoid in 2003, and in early June I made various comments on the subject at Virulent Memes and MetaFilter. The following is an edited version of those comments, to supplement my later wrapping-up here at Speedysnail.


I guess the writing has been on the wall; the record companies believe what they want to believe, whether it's the decline in CD sales being solely due to downloading (when, hello, the entire western world has been taking an economic hammering lately, leaving less disposable income for music), or the technical efficacy of copy control, or that consumers are somehow "agreeing" with CC even though the record companies have monopoly control of any particular release and there's no way of voting with your dollar for a clean version when it's only available in corrupt-o-sound.

But I refuse to play. Time to explore the back-catalogues and the indie labels. And for the rest, second-hand record stores are your friend.

The problem is that EMI doesn't label any of its disks as copy-controlled here in the UK, unlike Warner [note: it subsequently started labelling some]. But clearly they're releasing the stuff anyway. No more new EMI purchases for me, then. Should have listened to the prophets:

Don't judge a book just by the cover
Unless you cover just another
And blind acceptance is a sign
Of stupid fools who stand in line


RIAA vice president Matt Oppenheim says, "Having said all this about copy-protected CDs, as far as I know, only nine such CDs have been released in the U.S. The rumors of widespread use of copy-protected CDs seem to more prolific than the CDs." So that's all right, is it? It's not a problem, don't worry about it? Tell that to the rest of the world having to deal with this headache. You're next, America.

He goes on to say, in response to a question about whether it's okay to download a track that you already own on CD, "As a practical matter, there is no reason to do it. It is easier these days to rip a recording from a CD than to download it. And, when you rip the CD, you do not open up your computer to all of the spyware and other viruses that are part and parcel of most illegal P2P services." So ripping is okay, is it? Then why use copy protection designed to foil it? Surely the RIAA and the multinationals it represents would do nothing to antagonise legitimate customers wanting to listen to the music they've bought?

Good to know it's A-OK to record from 8-track, though.

Ripping a CD may be legal in the US, but Australians, for example, have no such right; converting tracks to digital format without explicit permission became illegal in Oz a couple of years ago. Just before Apple started advertising on Australian TV that we could use their gear to rip, mix, burn. And in the UK, we've got the new European copyright directives to dread look forward to.

In Australia and increasingly in Europe, record companies are releasing copy-controlled disks and slapping a warning label on them. Since they have monopoly control over any particular release, customers have no choice in the matter if they want to buy it. It's only a matter of time before America is next. The multinationals are trialing the technology in relatively small test markets, like Australia. When they figure they can get away with it, they'll roll it out everywhere.

And don't be fooled by the line about it being "easier for labels to introduce copy-protection technology without as much fear of a backlash" in Europe because PC use here is lower. PC use in Australia is almost as high per capita as it is in the US, yet music-buyers there are getting shafted regardless.


Beneath the claims the record companies make for rhetorical purposes lies a genuine fear for their own livelihood. Sure, 128kbps mp3s sound shitty on a decent stereo, but they sound good enough on computer speakers, or burnt onto a CD and played on a low-end boombox or in a car surrounded by traffic. And for those who historically have bought music in the highest quantities—teenagers—these are the more likely listening conditions. So mp3s are good enough for them, and they're acting accordingly.

What's worse (for the record companies), 192kbps or even 256kbps mp3s are now within acceptable download times for the increasing numbers of people with broadband connections, making the need for the higher quality of CD audio less compelling. The record companies are this close to their main product—plastic disks in plastic cases—becoming completely superfluous for the great majority of their traditional market.

It doesn't matter that mp3s aren't as good as CDs if they're good enough; and it doesn't matter that you can't always find what you want on p2p if most people can. Teenagers looking for the latest hit song by the latest flavour-of-the-month band can probably find it, and take away the sales of hit songs and flavours-of-the-month and your profit margin collapses.

So the record companies turn to copy protection, in the process alienating older music fans like me who actually do buy CDs, because they're desperate to convert the mp3-downloading teenagers into CD buyers. But the imperfect nature of copy protection means that mp3s remain available to download, and what teenager in their right mind would choose a copy-protected disk over mp3s, when they've shown no interest in unprotected CDs? And what long-time CD buyer—the kind who actually owns a high-end stereo, who owns a bunch of different CD-playing devices—is going to be happy with a disk that won't play on all of them? Is there a move more guaranteed to alienate both extremes of the music-loving market, leaving only the uncommitted middle to muddle along with their one album purchase a year?

The CD is dead, 1983-2003 R.I.P.; replaced by copy-protected doppelgangers and inferior-quality mp3s. The losers are those who actually appreciate the difference in audio quality that CD makes, who bought into the whole convert-to-CD argument ten or fifteen years ago and have been propping up the record companies ever since, and who now have nowhere to go but up into the over-priced realms of SACD and DVD-Audio, or down into over-compressed mp3 hell.


12-13 June 2003


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