Access Denied!

If the major record labels have their way, that bright red "record" indicator on your CD burner or personal computer could eventually become as unresponsive as the long-wave band on a vintage AM radio. Some of the labels have already released music discs that prevent you from using your computer to make digital copies on either recordable CDs or the computer's hard drive. Some of the copy-protection technologies make it difficult for you even to play a CD on a computer. And these discs also make it impossible for you to compress music on your PC for transfer to a portable MP3-type player.

As if that weren't bad enough, some of these "content management control" technologies won't let you make digital copies using a standalone CD recorder - even though you've already paid for the right to do so as part of the price of the recorder and the blank discs. Even worse, the unpredictable nature of some copy-protection systems makes it impossible to guarantee that the protected discs will play in all home and mobile CD equipment (including DVD players).

Hits and Misses As we reported last November in "Random Play," the record labels have been experimenting with five methods of copy protection (see "Meet the Schemes" on page 90), including Cactus Data Shield (CDS) from Midbar Tech; key2audio, developed by Sony's CD manufacturing arm, Sony Digital Audio Disc Corporation (Sony DADC); and MediaCloQ from SunnComm. Macrovision, the company whose name is synonymous with video copy protection, offers a system called SafeAudio Version 3 (SAV3). A fifth, as yet unnamed, system hails from the labs of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries (IFPI), the worldwide record-industry umbrella group that includes the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).

Some of the record labels' experiments have gone beyond the lab. Copy-protected CDs have been issued in Europe to an unsuspecting public with little or no warning on their packaging about possible playback glitches in computer drives or in home and mobile audio gear. (Even the record retailers were taken by surprise!) The most obvious public experiments - and foul-ups - have come from Germany's BMG, whose labels include RCA. The company upset a lot of people in Europe by using copy protection on its RCA releases there of Natalie Imbruglia's White Lilies Island and Greatest Hits by the Australian boy band Five.

The European RCA discs used Midbar's CDS protection, which is meant to foil PC copying. But it was the complications it caused with other audio gear that provoked the uproar. Many people thought their hardware was on the fritz only to learn that unadvertised copy protection was responsible for their playback woes. Depending on the hardware, the problems have included outright rejection of the disc, random track skipping, and an inability to play certain tracks. Apparently in response to the firestorm it created, the label has since rereleased both discs sans copy protection.