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No bad copies

Antipiracy zealots may have a new nemesis: the inventor of the CD.

A news story of Jan. 17 passed over the transoms of most media outlets without much fanfare, but for those who follow the up-and-down saga of online music, it was something of a bombshell. While major record labels rush heedlessly to introduce compact discs designed to prevent piracy, it turns out that Philips, the co-inventor of the CD, is digging in its heels.

“What we’ve seen so far [regarding the anticopying methods] is troublesome and cumbersome,” said Gerry Wirtz, general manager of the Philips copyright office that governs the compact disc trademark, in a Reuters report of the story. “We worry [the labels] don’t know what they’re doing.”

This was a bit like hearing General Motors say that the oil companies have some nerve screwing up their cars with the impurities in their gasoline. It was entirely reasonable to expect Philips–or anyone else whose livelihood depends on people buying music–to toe the antipiracy line all the way. Seeing Philips break ranks this way, even only in the arena of public discourse, was surprising and encouraging for those who feel that most antipiracy measures are borne of panic and greed. (It’s even more surprising considering that Philips is at the forefront of video copy-protection technology.)

To review, new anticopying technologies either introduce small errors to CDs or change the location of data on the discs to prevent them from being played back on computers. Most consumer CD players are able correct the errors and decipher the structure, unlike the more finicky computer CD drives. But even some set-top players are struggling with the often buggy technology.

For consumers, it’s the same old story that they’ve heard from record labels for decades: Go ahead and buy our products, but prepare to be told exactly how you can use them. What makes the process a little more insidious is that the initiative is being put into motion with little fanfare and with little warning about which CDs are being copy-proofed, and how many might be in the future. Philips maintains that once the data on a CD is altered to inhibit the functions it was created to perform, it’s technically not a CD anymore. In fact, Philips is considering demanding that labels refrain from putting the familiar “Compact Disc” logo (which it owns) on discs that have been copy-proofed.

For Philips, the issue is not only one of its prize invention being tampered with. There’s also the problem of practicality: There are likely hundreds (perhaps thousands) of different CD players on the market, and there’s no way all of them can read the new discs. In the likely event that nobody comes up with a cheap, easy way of retrofitting old players, millions of honest hardware owners could be left out in the cold.

A complicating factor in this story–as it is, and will continue to be, in every area of intellectual-property debate–is the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Philips, of course, is a major player in the CD-burner market, and it’s already stated that its future burners will be able to both play and record copy-protected CDs–a feature that flies in the face of the DMCA’s explicit ban on any method used to circumvent anticopying efforts. How ironic it would be if the world’s third-leading maker of consumer electronics, and a pioneer in digital-music technology, was prevented from making products that function according to their original design. That would be the net result if record labels are able to get the DMCA strictly enforced in this case.

Philips’s contention that copy-protected discs do not fall in the DMCA’s bailiwick–because they restrict playback of copied music, not the actual act of copying–will likely end up a matter for the courts to decide. But Philips is not some lowly hacker to be swatted aside; one of every two U.S. households owns one of its products, and its legal and fiscal resources are as massive as one might imagine. If it’s a fight that intellectual-property hardliners are after, they might be in for more than they bargained for.

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