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Universal copy-protected CD shuns players

The record label is distributing its first copy-protected CDs in the United States, adding a few new twists to the controversial idea.

John Borland Staff Writer, CNET News.com
John Borland
covers the intersection of digital entertainment and broadband.
John Borland
3 min read
On the eve of Universal's kickoff of its long-awaited Pressplay online music subscription service, the record label is distributing its first copy-protected CDs in the United States, adding a few new twists to the controversial idea.

It's not the first time that a CD has hit the market with technology built in that bars consumers from copying songs to their computers and distributing them online. But as the first open test by a major label in the U.S. market, the release will be closely watched and will likely prove precedent setting.

The disc chosen for the experiment is the soundtrack from the teen drag-racing movie "The Fast and the Furious." Although the music is unlikely to make any critics' top 10 lists, the technology is likely to set tongues wagging.

Universal has tapped Midbar Technology's Cactus Data Shield to lock up the ordinary CD audio files. But it has also included a separate audio player that allows digital versions of the songs to be played. These songs, which appear to be MP3s or related to MP3s, cannot be played through common media players such as Windows Media, Winamp or RealOne.

Nor can the digital files be played on anything other than a Windows operating system. Macintosh and Linux aficionados appear, for now, to be out of luck.

In a letter sent to retailers explaining the disc--and warning of potential returns--Universal said it is working to stop unauthorized copying, which cuts into the retailers' margins.

"Our goal is to closely partner with the retail community in combating the illegal copying of compact discs," wrote Jim Weatherson, a Universal executive vice president. "We share in your concerns and in response are pleased to be the first company to launch a campaign to confront this explosive and damaging trend."

The "Fast and the Furious" disc appears to be one of the most advanced experiments yet in a process that could radically transform the way that ordinary music compact discs are created and used.

All of the big major record labels are experimenting with ways to block consumers from "ripping" or transforming their CD songs into MP3 files and distributing them widely online though services such as the now-shuttered Napster or MusicCity's Morpheus.

Most of the labels have said only that they are studying the idea and have given no timetable. Universal executives have been among the most outspoken proponents of the idea.

Several technology companies that produce the technology have already moved toward putting digital versions of the files on the CDs along with the blocked copies, so that consumers can continue to play the CDs on their computer in some form. But most companies have said they were working with Windows Media, in an attempt to ensure widespread access to the music.

The new Universal CD instead relies on a player created by EverAd, a digital advertising company that once ran its own music service. Both companies are located in Israel. The player itself is a scaled-back version of the media players more familiar from Microsoft or RealNetworks, with a little play list, bass and treble controls, and the ability to loop or shuffle playback.

The digital files are contained in a single "CDS" file format, which is not explained. But in the license agreement for the technology, the company does indicate that it has used LAME (which originally, but no longer, stood for Lame Ain't an Mp3 Encoder), an open-source MP3 encoder.

Instructions that come with the CD indicate that the player can be used on any Windows operating system. A CNET News.com test found it worked well in a computer running Windows 2000, but that an older machine running Windows 95 could not recognize the disc.

In one odd byproduct, the disc also comes with a toll-free help line and Web site. A call to the phone line late in the day, Pacific time, found that it was open only during working hours, Central time.