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Streaming Media
Get in the Ring: Major Labels Get More Aggressive with Copy-Protection
Posted Sep 7, 2004 Print Version     Page 1of 1

When three-fifths of Guns N' Roses re-grouped this year as Velvet Revolver, they not only had a new name and a new singer, but a new twist on keeping their music out of pirates' hands. Contraband, a BMG title, was replicated with SunnComm's MediaMax copy protection software. Nothing new there; Anthony Hamilton's Comin' From Where I'm From marked the first BMG release in the U.S. to "officially" employ the technology, and other labels added copy protection on some releases as early as 2001, even though they wouldn't admit it publicly.

BMG not only admits it but proclaims it proudly with Contraband. While you had to read the fine print on Hamilton's CD to notice that it was copy-protected, Contraband—which debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200—shouted to buyers in large type on the back of the case that it was "protected against unauthorized duplication." But Contraband is just the highest-profile release to feature such explicit labeling; recent releases from Jill Scott, the Roots, and Papa Roach have included messages like "FBI Warning: Unauthorized Copying is Against the Law" displayed prominently on the packaging, complete with an FBI logo.

The strong sales figures for Contraband—it went platinum in less than three months—and other copy-protected albums indicate that consumers aren't deterred by the labels flaunting their anti-piracy efforts. In fact, SunnComm's Artie Ripp suggests that copy protection is doing exactly what the labels hoped it would, giving albums longer sales "legs." "MediaMax continues to deliver decreased sales fall-off, resulting in increased overall sales," Ripp says. As consumers discover they can't simply count on copying an album from someone else, they're more likely to buy their own copy.

Phoenix-based SunnComm announced the latest version of the technology in August. It features what the company calls "On the Fly" technology, which only implements the copy protection when users copy tracks over to their PCs. Traditionally, the copy-protected tracks are Windows Media files in a second session on the CD. With the new version of MediaMax, protected copies of the tracks aren't actually on the disc, limiting potential royalty liabilities for the labels. "This gives the record company and artist more room on the CD for music while decreasing the potential exposure from a publisher that results from placing a second copy of the music on each CD," says SunnComm president Peter Jacobs. The new version of MediaMax also features SecureBurn, which allows a set number of copies to be made before the copy protection kicks in.

That should take care of one of the biggest consumer complaints about copy-protected CDs so far: Since PCs read the WMA files in the second session, rather than the CD-Audio files in the first, fans can't copy tracks from some discs to their iPods or other MP3 players. (Of course, if fans buy the same disc from the iTunes Music Store, they don't run into the same problem—an advantage for Apple, but not for consumers.) The new version of Macrovision's CD copy protection technology, CDS-300, overcomes the shift-key workaround, and the company says it's negotiating to license Apple's FairPlay DRM technology.

As the new development from SunnComm and Macrovision attests, copy protection continues to be a lucrative market. SunnComm claims that MediaMax has been used on more than five million CDs. In addition to claiming its technology is on more than 150 million CDs worldwide, Macrovision has virtually cornered the market on DVD copy protection, and recently inked a deal to provide its CDS-300 copy protection to DOCdata, the largest independent replicator in the U.K. When you insert a Macrovision-protected CD, like Radio 4's Stealing of a Nation, into a PC, a Windows Media-based player opens up and begins playback.

When it comes to online audio content protection, Microsoft, Real, and Apple are still engaged in a fierce battle. Microsoft's WMA DRM technology has the distinct advantage of also being embraced by physical media producers, and Apple's iTunes—which employs the proprietary FairPlay technology on its AAC format—has established itself as the dominant force in legal online music downloading. But in July, RealNetworks announced the beta release of Harmony, a DRM system that effectively decrypts FairPlay (Apple claimed a more accurate description would be to say it "hacks" FairPlay) so that users can convert Real files to AAC tracks. At press time, Microsoft announced the new version of its Windows Media Player, which includes a "Digital Music Mall" featuring MSN Music, Napster, MusicMatch, and CinemaNow—all of which employ Microsoft's DRM—so iTunes' dominance may be in jeopardy.)

Of course, copy protection is an issue of interest to more than just music labels and movie studios, and companies like Hexalock and Media Rights Technologies. Version 3.0 of Hexalock's CD Copy Protection Suite now not only protects software programs but all digital assets on CD-ROMS—including MP3, AVI, MPEG, HTML, and XML file—and has entered partnerships with replicators including Allied Vaughn and DiscUSA. The company also markets CD-RX copy protectable CD-R media.

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