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Microsoft CD copy protection advances

The software giant digs its roots a little deeper into the music business as Macrovision agrees to license its Windows digital rights management technology for CDs.

Microsoft dug its roots a little deeper into the music business Wednesday, as copy-protection company Macrovision agreed to license its Windows digital rights management technology for CDs.

The software giant has gained considerable ground over the past few months in its bid to have its audio technology loaded on every copy-protected CD sold by record labels. While labels have yet to make any significant copy-protected releases in the United States, Microsoft is poised to have its technology onboard if they do.

Macrovision said its new relationship with Microsoft could help diminish labels' reluctance to release copy-protected CDs in the United States, because it would allow consumers more flexibility to use music from those discs on computers and MP3 players.

"We're hopeful that the labels will do some test releases this summer and do some major releases this winter," said Adam Sexton, vice president of marketing for Macrovision's music technology division. "Copy protection is working in Europe, and airplanes are not falling out of the sky. The economy is still functioning, despite the doomsday predictions."

The CD copy-protection business has been converging on Microsoft technology as a de facto standard for some time.

Original versions of the pirate-proofing technology blocked consumers' ability to copy or "rip" digital files from CDs altogether. After that proved unpopular with an increasingly PC-centric listening audience, copy-proofing companies like Macrovision and rival SunnComm Technologies looked for a way to put protected pre-ripped files directly on CDs, which could then instead be transferred to PCs.

Both companies have been talking about using Microsoft's Windows Media Audio format for this purpose for more than a year. The current version of Macrovision's technology, which the company says has been distributed on more than 100 million CDs around the world, uses encrypted MP3 files instead.

The Microsoft technology allows more flexibility, however. The pre-ripped, or "second session" Windows Media files added to music discs will allow record labels to specify exactly what can be done with the songs, such as burning a few extra CDs, making a few digital copies, or transferring them to an MP3 player.

Macrovision's license now allows the company to sell this full package of copy-protected and pre-ripped songs to record labels. SunnComm signed a similar license earlier this year.

Despite the movement on the technology front, there remains no indication from the major music labels as to when they might start releasing protected titles in the United States. A J.P. Morgan research report last month predicted that Arista Records, a BMG Music label, would move ahead shortly with SunnComm technology. BMG said that its plans remain unchanged, however, and it is still evaluating the copy-protection products.