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Copy-protected CD's wounded Pride

Newly released tunes by country music singer Charley Pride end up on the Net before his copy-protected CD hits retail stores.

Free copies of songs from country music singer Charley Pride's latest album appeared on the Internet this week, just shortly before a version of the CD incorporating new anti-copying technology was released in U.S. stores Tuesday.

The CD, released by Nashville, Tenn.-based Music City Records, features Pride's new album, "A Tribute to Jim Reeves." Eight of the 15 songs on the CD were posted Monday on a private Web page hosted by Yahoo.

The appearance of MP3s from the album muddies the debate over the effectiveness of CD encryption schemes in one of the first such commercial releases.

Phoenix-based SunnComm, which provided the copy-protection technology for the CD, said the leaked songs did not come from a cracked CD but were likely copied from an unprotected set of 2,000 CDs released in Australia.

"It's not a breach of our technology," said SunnComm Chairman John Aquilino. "We have a way of looking at what the content is and telling if someone has legitimately circumvented what we do, and this does not have those elements in it."

Aquilino added that Pride did everything he could to make sure his content in the United States was protected but was unable to do anything for the Australian market.

Regardless of whether the copy-protected CD was hacked, the leak underscores the need for all CDs to be protected for such measures to be effective, analysts said.

Music City Records' CD "is a short-lived experiment," said Aram Sinnreich, an analyst from research firm Jupiter Research. "If you're going to release a copy-protected CD, then you better make sure the music is not available in an unprotected format anywhere else; otherwise, it's a pointless academic exercise."

Although the indie label's copy-protected CD aims to thwart pirates, success stories don't come easily in the rough and tumble world of digital content protection.

The record industry wants to make it harder for consumers to directly copy CDs, which are the source for most MP3s traded online through services such as Napster. But it faces enormous hurdles. First, any barriers to copying must be "backward compatible"--meaning the new technologies would have to work on old CD players that don't screen for pirated material and vice versa.

In addition, the industry must tackle considerable nontechnical issues, including potential consumer backlash and legal uncertainties over curtailing copying for personal use.

That situation was underscored last year in a failed attempt by BMG Germany to push secure CDs using technology from Israeli security company Midbar. After shipping 130,000 copy-protected CDs, BMG was forced to abandon the project in January as complaints piled up from customers, who said the discs wouldn't work on their players.

Those efforts come against a backdrop of frustration in the music industry, which has been working unsuccessfully for years to create a digital copy-protection plan under a project known as the Secure Digital Music Initiative. The group last fall zeroed in on four technologies for installing so-called watermarks in digital files--a method that can track copies and even block songs from being played on certain devices.

But the SDMI continues to run into snags.

As one of the last legs on the road to approving an industry standard for CD security, the group sponsored a "hacking challenge" last fall, inviting programmers to break the finalists' codes.

An academic team led by Princeton University Professor Edward Felten succeeded in cracking all four codes. Under legal threats from the record industry, the team last month backed out of presenting their research at a conference.