Users Find Ways Around Anti-Copying CD Technology

Bloggers recently revealed that Sony BMG had hidden invasive software on some of its CDs to protect against unauthorized copying. The software also monitored and controlled how people used music they bought legally — and could potentially open computers to hackers. But users are finding ways around it.

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As holiday shoppers pick up last-minute gifts, they may be taking a hard look at some of the music that they're buying. Last month bloggers revealed that Sony BMG had placed invasive software on some of its CDs. The software was supposed to protect Sony's music from unauthorized copying. But it also monitored and controlled how people used music that they legally bought, and it had the potential to open consumers' computers to hackers. NPR's Neda Ulaby reports that some consumers have found ways around the problem.

NEDA ULABY reporting:

Let's say you're one of the 82,000 people who bought the album "Z" by the band My Morning Jacket.

(Soundbite of song)

MY MORNING JACKET: (Singing) Sorry about the things that I have said, and I'll make it up to you right now at the penny arcade.

ULABY: So you get home and load the tunes onto your computer. Let's say it runs Windows. Then you'd have a problem. Mike Martinovich is the band's manager.

Mr. MIKE MARTINOVICH (Manager, My Morning Jacket): We were told that there is going to be copy protection, but people are going to be able to listen to it on their iTunes, they're going to be able to listen to it on their CD players. And then our album came out in early October. You know, I was expecting to get, `Hey, great album, guys.' And the first 25 e-mails were like, `I can't play it on my computer. What's going on? I'm getting this pop-up window and now my computer crashed.'

ULABY: In its attempt to protect copyright, the software created significant security and privacy problems that caused a storm of controversy. So My Morning Jacket created a forum on the band's Web site where fans posted suggestions for getting around the software. That way they could import songs from the album into their iPods and burn copies for friends. And the band also sent free CDs, minus the software, to anyone who complained.

Mr. MARTINOVICH: And I would say we probably sent between 50 and 100 copies. I really haven't kept an Excel spreadsheet over it. I was, like, just getting it done, getting it out of my life and moving on.

ULABY: Sony BMG has admitted it sold at least five million albums with the troublesome technology, including CDs by Britney Spears, Sarah McLachlan and the Chieftains. The company has stopped manufacturing discs with the copy-protected software, it's given customers a way to remove it, and it's recalled some of the CDs. But Fred von Lohmann says there could be as many as three million still on store shelves. Von Lohmann is the senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He says there's an easy way to avoid buying one of the copy-protected recordings.

Mr. FRED VON LOHMANN (Attorney, Electronic Frontier Foundation): What you want to do is you want to look on the CD. On the front in the spine it says `copy-protected.' It has a logo. And on the back there's a disclosure box that describes as well that this CD will not play in all computers, things like that.

ULABY: But if you're already stuck with one of those CDs and you want to load it into your computer, getting around the software is amazingly easy.

Mr. ADAM PASH (Associate Editor, Lifehacker): Each time you insert a CD, if you hold the shift key...

ULABY: Yes, it's that simple. You just hold down the shift key, says Adam Pash. He's associate editor of a Web site called Lifehacker. And if you want to avoid putting the CD in your hard drive at all...

Mr. PASH: One way that you can get around that is you could put the CD, say, in your Discman or CD player and connect it to your computer's line in with an eighth-inch cord with an ancient stereo plug.

ULABY: Then, says Pash, recording the music from your Discman is a snap with any of a number of downloadable programs from the Internet. They can also rip streaming audio from Webcasts so you can hear it whenever you want. But is any of this legal?

Mr. VON LOHMANN: Well, you know, it's not entirely clear.

ULABY: The Electronic Frontier Foundation's Fred von Lohmann.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: As long as you're not making a copy, you're entitled to do more or less what you like with the music you buy. You can give it away. You can listen to it whenever you like. But once you start talking about making copies, you end up in a kind of murky gray area for the law.

ULABY: Von Lohmann says a probably legal but controversial way to avoid the software on Sony BMG CDs you've already bought would be to download the same songs from a peer-to-peer service. After all, he says, you did pay for the CDs.

Mr. VON LOHMANN: And now you have to be careful. Just because you bought the CD, that may give you a right to make a copy on your machine, but it doesn't give you the right to offer that to your 10 million closest friends. But assuming that you know what you're doing and you can make sure that you're only downloading, you're not sharing the music with others, I think that would be every bit as much a fair use.

ULABY: It should be noted that the Electronic Frontier Foundation is working with Sony BMG to educate consumers about the controversial software. It's also filed three lawsuits against the company on behalf of those consumers. Meanwhile, My Morning Jacket's Mike Martinovich says the repercussions for his band have been difficult to calculate.

Mr. MARTINOVICH: I can't give you a percentage of a number of CDs we could have sold more because of it or sales we've lost because of it, but I can say that the copy protection issue has become part of a dialogue between artist and fan in addition to their musicianship, and that's really the biggest problem.

ULABY: Some might argue the biggest problem is the lack of dialogue between consumers and the music industry, a disconnect that's driven law-abiding music lovers to take technology into their own hands. Neda Ulaby, NPR News.

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