Shift key breaks CD copy locks

A Princeton University student has published instructions for disabling the new anticopying measures being tested on CDs by BMG--and they're as simple as holding down a computer's Shift key.

A Princeton University student has published instructions for disabling the new anticopying measures being tested on CDs by BMG--and they're as simple as holding down a computer's Shift key.

In a paper published on his Web site this week, Princeton Ph.D. student John Halderman explained how he disabled a new kind of copy-protection technology, distributed as part of a new album by BMG soul artist Anthony Hamilton.

Under normal circumstances, the antipiracy software is automatically loaded onto a Windows machine whenever the Hamilton album is run in a computer's CD drive, making traditional copying or MP3 ripping impossible. However, simply holding down the Shift key prevents Windows' AutoRun feature from loading the copy-protection software, leaving the music free to copy, Halderman said.

The technique was confirmed by BMG and SunnComm Technologies, the small company that produces the anticopying technology. Both companies said they had known about it before releasing the CD, and that they still believed the protection would deter most average listeners' copying.

"This is something we were aware of," BMG spokesman Nathaniel Brown said. "Copy management is intended as a speed bump, intended to thwart the casual listener from mass burning and uploading. We made a conscious decision to err on the side of playability and flexibility."

The ease with which Halderman and others have disabled BMG and SunnComm's latest copy-protection techniques illustrates the delicate balance that record labels and technology companies are trying to strike in protecting content without angering listeners.

SunnComm's technology is the most flexible version of CD copy-protection to hit the market yet. It includes "pre-ripped" versions of the songs on the CD itself, each of which can be transferred to a computer, burned to CD several times, or transferred to many kinds of portable devices. These differ from unrestricted MP3 files in that only limited copies can be made, and not every portable music device can play them.

The Anthony Hamilton CD is the first release in this new generation of copy-protected CDs that come preloaded with these "second session" tracks designed for use on a computer, a strategy also being pursued by SunnComm rival Macrovision. Record labels have pushed for these tracks, mostly provided in Microsoft's Windows Media format, to be included on copy-protected CDs in order to ameliorate consumers' concerns about not being able to use their music on computers.

SunnComm CEO Peter Jacobs said the technology--which will be improved in future versions--should still be attractive to record companies. Though simple, the act of holding down the Shift key in order to enable copying does let computer users know they're doing something unauthorized, he said. That alone will dissuade many people from making copies, he added.

"This is not an all-or-nothing thing," Jacobs said. "People can break into your house, because there's lots of information out there on how to pick locks. But that knowledge doesn't mean you don't buy a lock."

In order to fully prevent the antipiracy software from loading, a listener has to hold the Shift key down for a long period of time, at exactly the right time, every time they listen to the CD on a computer. Moreover, anyone who doesn't load the software won't get access to the second session tracks, which on future CDs will increasingly include videos and other bonus material, record company insiders say.

For his part, Halderman says the workaround is so simple that it's hard to fix. Nor is he worried about falling afoul of laws that make it illegal to describe how to get around copy-protection measures.

"I hardly think that telling people to push Shift constitutes trafficking in a (copy-protection technology) circumvention device," Halderman said. "I'm not very worried."

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