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Tales from the Jugular

An Alternative Approach To Copy-Protection

By: Johnny Pardon
Published: Sunday, July 20, 2003
"Three days after a Princeton graduate student posted a paper on his Web site detailing how to defeat the copy-protection software on a new music CD by pressing a single computer key, the maker of the software said on Thursday it would sue him...SunnComm's MediaMax CD-3 software could be blocked by holding down the "Shift" key on a computer keyboard as a CD using the software was inserted into a disc drive."

Y'know, this isn't the first time that a simple solution was found to circumvent copy protection. Not too long ago it was found that some protected CDs could be played just by coloring the outer edge with a black marker then the marked-up CD played and copied to the hard drive without a hitch. There were even claims that tape or even a sticky note had the same result.

Think about the millions it cost for a minute. This major entertainment conglomerate decides to protect their CDs. Multiple meetings took place just to decide this. Some brilliant techie came up with the idea of adding a track to the copy-protected disc that contains bogus data. Because computer hard drives are programmed to read data files first, the computer will continuously try to play the bogus track first. It never gets to play the music tracks located elsewhere on the compact disc. The effect is that the copy-protected disc will play on standard CD players but not on computer CD-Rom drives, some portable devices and even some car stereo systems.

Then they had more meetings to decide who would get the contract to write the software. The contractor spend many hours and meetings deciding what would go in the bogus track and in between games of Unreal Tournament an IT team wrote and tested the code. The machines that make the CDs had to be reprogrammed to write the new code which probably occured over many bug-filled attempts. Finally, it works and there's a champagne party thrown for everbody involved who just saved the company from billions of losses to come.

Then some joker with a Sharpee puts a mark around the edge and within a couple days word spreads around the globe via the Net that the CD protection has been busted. That's it--millions of dollars down the tube. Should they sue everybody with black markers?

Well, I've got a novel idea for everybody. It's not my idea, really, I'm just applying it to the situation. It's the concept of using oversupply to defeat a trend that most people dislike until eventually, the trend becomes passe or even completely rejected.

Let the big companies copy protect all their CDs. Don't sue them; encourage them to use copy protection. Let them flood the market and we'll be able to get rid of it faster.

Of course we need a couple presuppositions:

1. Technology will defeat technology - No matter what protection scheme is used, software or hardware, an enterprising wirehead will rig up a descrambler or some software engineer will deconstruct the program and it'll show up on the Web. They will be defeated and the upmanship will continue.

2. Music buyers want to copy - There are too many places to play music (stereo, car, MP3 player) and the computer is one of the big ones. Consumers of this decade will not be restricted to just their corner bedroom CD player.

What the companies are doing amounts to a wrestling feud that's all promos and no match. They throw out a few protected CD titles, get verbally spanked by some knowing consumers, then run away to try something else. I'd like to see them put protection on ALL the releases they put out; all in one week. Then the bell would ring and the fists would be flying! Every music fan who doesn't pay attention or is too lazy to care would then take up arms against the companies and smite them into a pool of bloody arrogance. Could you imagine how the retail stores would cope with hordes of pissed off customers wanting their money back. No store policy could stand against that. It might even become smart to advertise that you do NOT carry protected CDs. I think it would be a slaughter with the copy protection banished in favor of clean CDs once and for all.

But the companies don't flood the market do they. They're not stupid and neither is SunnComm. Since, I started this column, they've decided not to sue the Princeton graduate student.

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