If you know someone who has Natalie Imbruglia's latest CD, White Lilies Island, or Five's Greatest Hits CD, there's an interesting experiment to be done by sticking either in the nearest Windows PC. You'll find that the CD won't play; it'll probably just whirr round and round, depending on the machine. So far, hundreds of people have complained to shops about the Imbruglia CD, released by the German music group BMG. There is no warning on either the Imbruglia or Five CD to say it won't play in a PC – which has led to buyers taking them back to their shops and complaining. HMV and Virgin are replacing them free of charge, and are said to have made their displeasure known to BMG.
The cause of all the trouble is the copy protection installed on the CD in order to prevent people "ripping" the songs on their computer to MP3 format and either burning copies, or making them available over file-sharing systems such as Gnutella. Called Cactus Data Shield, it is one of a number of anti-piracy measures being introduced by record companies that are trying to rein in the increasing music file-sharing on the Net. The aim of the protection system is simple: to stop people copying the digital files.
But what it actually does is to stop people playing the CDs on PC CD-rom drives. The difference might seem minor – but it also means that the CD won't play on a number of car stereos, the Playstation 2, some DVD players and, of course, Windows PCs. (Apple Macintosh computers, which use a slightly different system to read CDs, apparently mostly ignore the copy protection.) The reason: many of those use the same systems, or, in some cases, the same hardware as PCs.
If your principal CD player is a PC, perhaps in your bedroom – which is the case for many teenagers whom one would expect to be Five fans (and even some Imbruglia buyers) – it means that you've just bought a £15 piece of useless plastic. And a lot of people do listen to CDs on PCs: in August, the research group Gartner found that half of people had done that at some stage. No wonder music shops got complaints. But is that the end of it? "Until very recently, I would have thought that in a couple of years, every music CD in the shops would be sold with protection," said Julian Midgley of the Campaign for Digital Rights, which opposes the use of the copy-protection systems. "But I think this might be a turning point in the other direction because it shows that public pressure to have useful products, rather than broken ones, is sufficient to get shops to say that they won't have them." (The CDR is collecting a list of copy-protected CDs, which is available online.)
One could call such consumers the "collateral damage" in the war between record companies and the folk who make digital copies of CDs. But the war is about to get a lot more intense. The record companies are looking at falling profits (whether due to the recession or to copying), and are about to launch their own online services to offer songs. The notion that there is a hard core of Imbruglia or Five fans with high-speed Net connections who are downloading and burning MP3 versions of the songs doesn't really bear examination – especially given the parlous state of broadband in the UK. But it's likely that there are quite a few teenaged digital pirates making copies of their own or friends' new CDs and handing them out, or selling them, in the playground. And that's the last thing the record companies want.
However, those teenagers are the first thing they have to deal with. Hence Cactus, made by Midbar, and other technologies from companies including Key2Audio and Suncomm have been tested on the quiet in the US, South America and Germany – reckoned to be some of the worst areas for "user piracy". Album sales generally have fallen by 5 per cent; sales of CD-Rs have risen by 80 per cent (though arguably some of that is going to businesses and even home users who are sensibly backing up data from their PCs).
The Natalie Imbruglia CD was the first commercial CD sold in the UK to incorporate such copy protection, according to the Campaign for Digital Rights, which argues that doing so means that the companies are both selling substandard products (because they won't play on every CD-capable machine) and interfering with the music quality even on machines that can play them (because the copy protection can interfere with the player's error correction system, which compensates for scratches on the CD and stops them being audible as clicks or pops).
So why did BMG choose that one? "We had to start somewhere," said a BMG representative. However, it's not clear whether Ms Imbruglia has a huge group of CD-burning fans, nor whether she agreed to being the guinea pig for a new era in CDs. "That's a matter for an artist's manager," said BMG's representative.
BMG regrets the fact that the CD wouldn't play. "The problem is people burning copied CDs," the representative said, "not people playing their CDs in PCs. We have for now suspended issuing copy-protected CDs to the market. But this [lack of playability] will get sorted out. Copy protection is the way forward."
The incident may have gained BMG some unwanted publicity, but the record companies are not retreating. Two years ago, they reckoned that, worldwide, one in every four CDs of new music was actually just a copy; by the end of this year, they forecast, as many CD-Rs will be burnt with music as are bought.
Universal has already said it will move to put copy protection on all of its new releases by next summer (a retreat from its earlier position, which was by the end of the year). EMI has a testing program in place, though it has not apparently released any protected CDs. Sony is examining its options, though copy-protection is a big thing generally at the corporation.
The problem with this war is that it's one the business is effectively fighting with its customers. In the UK especially, people know that CDs cost more in real terms than they do in the US or Europe. In the mid-Nineties, that created resentment; the arrival of copying technology has brought release for that resentment. People are paying exactly what they think the music is worth; and "free" is a hard price to beat.
Beating the technologies used to copy and rip CDs is thus the focus for music companies. One senior record executive has a very direct test for any proposed protection system: he takes sample CDs home to his teenage sons. "I haven't found one yet that they can't beat," he told me.
The unanswered question is whether these copied CDs truly represent lost sales, or whether they mean people are just listening to music that they wouldn't have bought anyway. Napster surveys showed that in areas around colleges, where Napster use was high, CD sales also rose. The record industry replied with figures showing declining profits, increasing piracy, and the proliferation of CD-burning systems. The counter-counter argument was provided, ironically, by one of EMI's biggest groups, Radiohead. All the songs on their latest CD, Amnesiac, were available over the Net before the album was released. The band were delighted to arrive at gigs to play the unreleased songs and find that fans already knew the words. And the album, unprotected and already online, went to number one in the US.
Campaign for Digital Rights 'bad CD' list: http://uk.eurorights.org/issues/cd/bad
'Fat Chuck's' list of copy protected CDs: http://fatchucks.com/corruptcds/Reuse content