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Anti-copying firm eases CD controls

SunnComm's technology, which prevents consumers from ripping MP3s off of CDs, has sparked consumer outrage. Now the company aims to offer a compromise.

SunnComm is adding a spoonful of sugar to its anti-copying medicine.

The Phoenix, Ariz.-based copy-protection company has been the target of consumer outrage over its technology, which is designed to stop people from shifting music tracks from CDs to their computers. On Thursday, it offered a compromise, adding a feature that lets people e-mail songs from protected albums to family and friends. SunnComm said a file expires after the recipient listens to the song a certain number of times.

Phil Benyola, a digital media research associate for investment company Raymond James Financial, said SunnComm is adding the service, PromoPlay, "as an incremental incentive" for the labels to choose SunnComm over other security companies.

The new feature comes as record labels are placing anti-copying technology on CDs in an effort to prevent piracy. CD tracks can be easily converted into computer files and are the main source of music that appears on Internet file-swapping services such as Napster, Kazaa and Morpheus. Record labels say such services have contributed to a drop in retail sales that threatens the entire industry.

Most of the major record labels have announced plans to use some form of anti-copying features on discs, and millions of the protected albums have been sold in Europe already.

But the practice faces a growing backlash from consumers, legislators and companies that own the rights to some of the underlying CD technology.

Earlier this year, SunnComm, Fahrenheit Entertainment and MusicCity Records settled a lawsuit stemming from a Charley Pride album, the first known CD released in the United States to incorporate anti-copying technology. The defendants agreed to warn consumers that CDs that use SunnComm technology are not compatible with MP3 and other players, among other things.

Critics say such copy-protection measures may prevent music buyers from making personal copies of legally purchased music, an activity protected in the United States under the 1992 Audio Home Recording Act. In an effort to balance the rights of consumers, some labels have been experimenting with offering computer files along with copy-protected tracks on discs that allow some limited copying.

SunnComm embeds its technology into a CD to make the disc's directory structure invisible so it cannot be read by a personal computer, thus throwing off potential music pirates. On Thursday, SunnComm added the PromoPlay feature, which lets consumers send copy-protected songs to each other via e-mail. The files are encoded using Microsoft's Windows Media format.

Although SunnComm is aiming to provide a legal way of sharing music, sending e-mail messages with a Windows Media audio file may not be the most efficient solution for consumers. SunnComm said on average each track is 3MB, which can be prohibitively large, especially for people who access the Internet via slow dial-up connections.

In addition, the file sizes exceed the limits offered by some free Web-based e-mail services. For instance, Microsoft's Hotmail service offers 2MB of storage space, while Yahoo has a limit of 3MB. Both e-mail services provide extra storage, but only for a fee.

SunnComm faces stiff competition from a host of other digital rights management companies aiming to win applause from the major record labels. Last year, record giant BMG Entertainment began testing technologies from security companies that include SunnComm, Midbar Tech and Macrovision.

SunnComm Chief Executive Peter Jacobs said the company offers the best of both worlds for record labels and consumers.

"We've created legal sharing as a way to replace file-sharing services," he said. "It's really peer-to-peer legally. It's where one person's computer can share a tune with another person's computer in a legal way...That's where the industry needs to go."