Copy Protection Hang-Ups Irk Music Fans

The music industry hopes to contol illegal file sharing by putting digital locks on music, but some consumers suffer unintended consequences when the technology for copy protection acts unpredictably.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Now on Mondays our business report focuses on technology, and this morning we'll report on the side effects of a technological fix. The music industry puts digital locks on music, an effort to control music piracy. That's the plan anyway. NPR's Laura Sydell reports on what may be going wrong.

LAURA SYDELL reporting:

David Blood(ph) is a big fan of the Foo Fighters. When their new CD "In Your Honor" came out, he bought a copy right away, but he didn't get to listen to it much.

Mr. DAVID BLOOD: I bought the album on the day it came out, and I've gotten to listen to it once because my wife has had it in her car. She's even a bigger Foo Fighters fan than I am.

(Soundbite of music)

FOO FIGHTERS: (Singing) Mine is yours and yours is mine. There is no divide. In your honor, I would die tonight.

SYDELL: To keep his wife and himself happy, Blood attempted to make a copy for himself, which is perfectly legal.

Mr. BLOOD: My computer wouldn't copy it, and I was looking online for why that might be, and I found out it was copy protected.

SYDELL: That is, there is a code on the CD that limits copying. The Foo Fighters disc is an example of a trend throughout the music industry towards copy protection of CDs. Sony Music, which produced "In Your Honor," says consumers should be able to make three personal copies, and that Blood's problem is rare. But Princeton computer science Professor Ed Felton says his research has shown that once a CD is encoded with copy protection, there will always be some devices that can't play it.

Professor ED FELTON (Princeton University): You won't be able to avoid unforeseen problems. As soon as you start deviating from the compact disc standard, some people are going to have trouble, and it will be a very difficult engineering process to track down all of these problems and stamp them out.

SYDELL: In fact, numerous Web postings and blogs show that Blood wasn't the only one with a problem. Some call the copy protection on the Foo Fighters CD annoying. Others say it's nightmarish. In order for consumers to rip or load the CD onto their iPod, they must go to Sony's Web site to find a way around the copy protection. Sony would not comment on tape for this story; however, they say there haven't been many complaints. Indeed, the CD has sold close to 900,000 copies in the US; however, if copy protection was meant to stop piracy, it hasn't done that. According to BigChampagne, which tracks song downloads, Foo Fighters' "In Your Honor" is one of the most commonly swapped albums on peer-to-peer networks. Professor Felton says copy protection is never unbeatable.

Prof. FELTON: You might be able to stop the average user from ripping the compact disc, but an expert user will be able to do it, and once that expert user rips the compact disc and puts it out on a file-sharing network, then it's available to everybody.

SYDELL: Still, Talal Shamoon, CEO of InterTrust, a company which consults on and develops digital rights management, or DRM, thinks copy protection is an effective and legitimate way of shaping the behavior of average consumers and making it known that music is not free.

Mr. TALAL SHAMOON (CEO, InterTrust): When you're buying a compact disc, you're not buying the right to share it with 20 million people on the Internet. You're buying the right to listen to it in very well-defined ways, like on players in your house and so on, and I think it's the right of the content companies to actually try to at least shape behavior around the right which they're selling.

SYDELL: Yet consumers with no intentions of breaking the law find themselves caught in the cross fire of the war against piracy. Industry analyst Mike McGuire of the Gartner Group thinks companies run the risk of turning off the same customers they're trying to woo.

Mr. MIKE McGUIRE (Gartner Group): Consumers are expecting and demanding the ability to easily purchase or access digital media on their terms, and the folks that are going to work against that are the folks that are going to be in a great deal of trouble in the coming years.

SYDELL: The Foo Fighters themselves offered no comment when asked about copy protection by NPR, but fan David Blood says he actually feels a little bit of resentment towards the band he loves and digital rights management, or DRM, may make him think twice about his next purchase.

Mr. BLOOD: I'm definitely going to look ahead of time now before I buy another CD and see if it's DRM'd, and I might reconsider if it is.

SYDELL: Digital rights management and copy protection technologies are becoming more common in the music industry. The big question is will rival companies ever be able to come together to create a uniform standard that will give consumers enough flexibility to make them happy? Laura Sydell, NPR News.

INSKEEP: This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

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