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Is copy protection dead on arrival?

Technology concerns are raising new doubts about the viability of products that take away consumers' ability to copy songs.

The growing buzz over copy-protected CDs may be causing some consumers to hear double.

For several weeks, news that record companies have quietly been selling copy-protected compact discs in stores has been filtering around the Net. Although nobody has yet produced a verified copy of a CD loaded with this technology, developed by copy-protection giant Macrovision, it has produced a wave of "sightings" that have swept even to places as prominent as Amazon.com's consumer reviews.

Accusations have been flying in e-mail, mailing lists and Web sites from people who claimed to find tainted CDs, ranging from 'N Sync singles to the latest works by the Dave Matthews Band. For the last several days, Amazon's lead consumer review on the page advertising the soundtrack to the movie "O Brother Where Art Thou" has been headlined "Warning, Warning, Warning."

"DO NOT BUY THIS CD if you are going to copy it to your computer," wrote James Dunn from Mercer Island, Wash. "It contains the music distortion scheme from Macrovision...What a horrible thing to do to such beautiful music."

There's only one problem: The CD in question does not appear to have any copy-protection technology installed, according to tests by CNET News.com and others who were able to turn songs on the CD into the MP3 format without trouble.

Even as Macrovision claims success in its efforts to slip copy-protected CDs past unsuspecting music buyers, the effort is raising new doubts about the viability of products that take away consumers' ability to copy songs. Beyond ratcheting up consumer fears of purchasing distorted CDs, hackers have targeted the effort as a test of their prowess, with some already claiming success even before they've had the opportunity to test out their techniques on an actual copy-protected CD.

"I think it's a dangerous dance for the labels," said Phil Leigh, a music-retailing analyst for brokerage house Raymond James. "Consumers have long considered it their God-given right to copy (music) for personal use once they've paid for it."

Efforts to protect CDs against unauthorized copying aren't new. Record labels, leery of seeing pirated copies of works slip onto the Internet for wide distribution, have talked about the idea for years. The still-struggling Secure Digital Music Initiative (SDMI) was in part an effort to build standard technology discouraging copying into music and music players.

As SDMI continues to be bogged down with disagreements among labels, tech companies and consumer electronics manufactures, the recording companies have turned to other measures. BMG tested one technology in Germany designed to stop copying but pulled the experiment after the CDs proved unable to play on many ordinary CD players.

Another anti-copying technology from a company called SunnComm was added to a recent release by country artist Charley Pride. Copies of songs from this album almost immediately leaked onto the Net, but the label and SunnComm said they had originated from unprotected versions of the album. BMG said earlier this week that it would also test SunnComm's work.

The real buzz didn't start until Macrovision, a company best known for anti-piracy technology in videotapes and DVDs, said that its so-called SafeAudio technology had been selling as a test in CDs on the market for four to six months. At least one title had sold more than 100,000 copies, and close to 200,000 individual CDs had been distributed, the company said, adding that the return rate on these CDs has been no higher than usual.

That technology worked by introducing deliberate distortions into the actual audio file on CDs, the company said. While inaudible on a CD player--ordinary players have error correction technology that would effectively eliminate the flaws in the sound--these distortions would show up as annoying pops and clicks in a song that had been digitally copied to a PC hard drive.

Macrovision declined to say which CDs had been produced with the technology. Most record labels declined to comment on the technology, although BMG confirmed that it would test the product. Macrovision did not return repeated calls for this article.

Macrovision's claims of success have not placated some consumers, for whom the threat of a distorted CD is as good as subjective reality.

Meanwhile, the company's plans have drawn a line in the sand for hackers, who are already racing to see who can crack its safeguards first.

Vaporware arms race
The latest twist comes as hackers claim to find ways around the Macrovision technology, declaring the labels' efforts to block copying dead on arrival.

In an article published on Dutch Web site CDFreaks.com, an analysis of the SafeAudio techniques claim that the copy protection can be evaded by using one of several CD copying techniques that have been floating around the Net for years, long before the current debate erupted.

Because no copies of the protected CDs could be obtained--and not even CDFreaks claimed to have one--this technique could not be verified. Nevertheless, the technique has now been a source of considerable debate on technical communities around the Web for days.

In the meantime, some of the companies that could be most affected by the attempts to stop consumers creating MP3 files from CDs are watching and waiting. Manufacturers that create MP3 players depend on consumers' own music collections for their sales, and to date record companies have sold few authorized, bought-and-paid-for downloads online.

But the manufacturers say they're not worried about their business yet.

"We haven't spent a lot of time thinking about this one," said Chris Schairbaum, worldwide marketing manager for Texas Instruments, which produces many of the chips that drive MP3 players. "We believed this type of technology would be introduced much sooner...It has been interesting to see how long it has actually taken to get to trial stage."