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Bring the noise

Some copy-protection schemes could be more than just an annoyance. Tracks hed: Bring the noise dek: some copy-protection schemes could be more than just an annoyance.

The antipiracy war being waged by the music industry has reached a level of ruthlessness that might have seemed inconceivable in the past. European CD buyers are being used as guinea pigs for technology that might prevent copying of digital music tracks–and, according to some researchers, might also render the tracks unlistenable, or even damage consumers’ stereos.

Since early last summer, one million CDs protected by the controversial antipiracy system Cactus Data Shield have been released in Europe. The technology was developed by the Israeli tech-security firm Midbar, which says it’s working with Sony’s Music Entertainment division on a plan to embed Cactus in CDs released in the United States.

Cactus isn’t the first copy-protection technology to come under fire for how it might affect the listening experience. Macrovision’s SafeAudio technology, introduced late in 2000, essentially corrupts the data on a CD. A good CD player’s error-correction systems can handle the bursts of noise added to the music, so the listener, ideally, hears nothing but perfect sound reproduction; the error-correction system treats the noise as just one more result of the inherently noisy environment that exists on all CDs thanks to things like dirt, fingerprints, and frequent laser misreads.

Computer CD drives, on the other hand, can’t always handle the extra noise. They require the mediation of a controller application that treats the extra noise as corrupt data and triggers a read failure. That renders SafeAudio discs unrippable. (A bypass, written about on the CD-R Web site CD Freaks, converts the disc tracks to WAV files and saves them as readable volumes.)

The stir being caused by the Cactus system is even more dramatic. Research conducted by New Scientist magazine shows how Cactus works. Like SafeAudio, Cactus adds noise to the music data stored on the CD. During playback, the noise is ignored, but on duplication–even on consumer CD-to-CD component burners not disabled by SafeAudio–the noise disrupts the copier’s error-correction system. New Scientist’s research discovered that the result is a CD-R full of noise, not music. And worse, the waveform generated during an attempted copy is a type to which hi-fi and loudspeaker circuitry is particularly sensitive. If the noise-filled disc is played back too loudly, it can fry speaker components.

New Scientist also discovered that the potential of copy-protected discs to damage equipment can be effectively eliminated by the company that masters a given CD.This can be done by changing the characteristics of the noise (and subsequently, the soundwave) generated by players’ error-correction systems. Steps to alter the mastering process in this way haven’t yet seen the light of day, however.

Understandably, Midbar wants to keep suspicion and alarm about its technology at a minimum. It states on its Web site, “Industry associations IFPI and RIAA gave the Cactus Data Shield (CDS) solution the highest score possible for protection effectiveness. CDS protected CDs play on all types of machines without making any change to the quality of the recording or the abilities of the playback machinery itself. The only thing CDS prevents is the illegal and/or unauthorized reproduction of content.”

Midbar has its story, and researchers and consumers have theirs. Anecdotal evidence at the very least suggests that antipiracy technology is still developing, even if it turns out that Midbar’s claims that Cactus is harmless prove true.

Is the rush to curtail digital piracy so intense that companies are willing to jeopardize the goodwill (not to mention the stereos) of consumers to such a degree? Until that question is answered definitively, copy with caution.

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