When it is Copy Controlled (tm).
So what are you really buying? Look carefully at your next CD purchase, and read on for some discussion.
Compact Discs have been around since the early 1980's. The CD standard (known as Redbook audio audio) was proposed by Philips and Sony, and eventually became one of the most successful media formats ever. Millions of CDs are sold every year, and the worldwide market is worth billions of dollars. CD players are available for high-end home stereos, personal computers, cars, and walkmans.
The CD standard also has a data format, capable of storing 650-700Mb of data. This capability enabled a whole new generation of multimedia applications, and became the defacto standard for distributing software (which rapidly outgrew floppy disks). Once CD recorders ("burners") became affordable, they also became an exremely popular backup mechanism.
The introduction of the CD enabled more than one revolution; the worldwide music industry and the computer industry both significantly benefited from having such a cheap, compact, flexible, high capacity, high quality medium.
Raw Digital Audio
If you stick a CD into a PC, you can read the audio off the disc and store it as a WAV file. This is known as "ripping", and can have both legitimate and illegal uses. Once you have a WAV file, you can play it or play with it. A typical digital CD audio track (for a 3min song) represents about 45Mb of storage for the raw data, so a whole album could require hundreds of megabytes of storage. This raw data also does not compress very well at all using traditional data compression tools. So for many years, the very large storage requirements for CD tracks combined with fairly modest bandwidth available to most consumers meant that piracy was very low. It was technically possible, but hardly widespread.
The MP3 Revolution
Then in 1987, the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany developed and patented a technique for compressing digital audio. This became the ISO-MPEG Audio Layer-3 standard, and delivered high-quality ditigal audio with very small bandwidth. A typical MP3 song might only take up 3Mb, with only a very small reduction in quality.
MP3 rapidly gained in popularity, and took off in many areas of the market. There were MP3 players (such as WinAmp (which has a very interesting history of its own), for playing MP3 songs. Then there were MP3 encoders that took existing songs or CDs and converted them into MP3 files. This enabled music buffs to convert their CD collection into files and use their PC as one enormous juke-box. Before long, portable MP3 players hit the market, and now we have devices that are not much bigger than a whiteboard marker that can hold thousands of songs, that can fit in your pocket. No skipping or jumping, since the hardware has no moving parts. Digital audio on the run. Apple introduced the iPod which has become a phenomenal success.
Dozens of websites (such as MP3.com have sprung up to distribute and sell MP3 songs. MP3s have enabled independent artists (who might otherwise struggle in the hypercompetitive marketplace) to reach a far wider audience than was ever possible before. And even successful artists (such as David Bowie) are using online digital audio to change the nature of the relationship with their fans. Some artists are even using MP3s to give fans priority access to songs before their release, and even give feedback to shape the music as it is being produced. In short, MP3 and digital audio technology has provided another revolution.
In recent years, the cost of storage and bandwidth have gone down, while their capacity has gone up. Broadband access is now commonplace (at least in developed countries), and a typical hard drive can now hold 30Gig. All of a sudden, storing thousands of MP3s was easy, not to mention transferring them. And so before too long, people began trading MP3s to expand their collection. To obtain hard to find albums. To get songs before they are released in certain countries. Whatever the individual reasons, MP3 trading became incredibly popular. Napster (software designed to trade music online) became one of the most popular applications on the net. It allowed you to suck down countless songs from other users, while making available your own collection to others.
But - this practice is illegal. Fair use provisions vary, but the basics of the Berne convention apply to most countries. And that is that giving someone else a copy of a song is a violation of copyright. The MP3 traders were violating federal copyright law every single time Napster spat out another copy of a song. So regardless of their motives or intentions, they were breaking the law. There is no space (or time!) for an argument about the morals of such activities; I will have to save that for another article.
Now let me be absolutely clear that I do not for one moment condone the actions of such traders. I believe that artists deserve fair compensation for their work, and that if we do not like the current regime of recording industry hegemony and copyrights, we should work within the system to improve and change the law. I am concerned however that the reaction of the recording industry to the problem of MP3 trading is resulting in an erosion of rights and choices for normal consumers.
The doctrine of fair use "attempts to balance the interests of copyright holders with the public interest in the wider distribution and use of creative works, by allowing certain limited uses that might otherwise be considered infringement." This means that for the purposes of research, criticism, pardody, teaching, and reporting, certain uses may be made of copyrighted works.
It has also long been practice for people to make personal copies of music, such as a tape to play in the car, or a compilation tape to play at a party. However, these cases are technically not covered by fair use law. Strictly speaking, the act of copying any sound recording (without permission or license) is a violation. However, as far as your humble author is aware, this has not been enfored by the record companies, as their profits are not hurt by me listening to an album in the car that I have already paid for.
This CD is Copy Controlled(tm)
The revolution in digital audio, ushered in by MP3 and consumer broadband, could have been embraced by the music industry. It could have enabled whole new markets to emerge, and created new opportunities for artists and delivered more choice to consumers.
But instead, organisations such as the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) - which represents the record companies and not necessarily the interests of the artists - became very scared. They saw MP3s and online digital audio as a threat, not an opportunity. So they started sueing companies and individuals. They lobbied the government to introduce new laws to prevent people from copying, make it an offence to bypass copy protection measures, stiffen fines, and shut down companies that provided software that enabled such activities. Whether or not the software could be used in a non-infringing or 'fair use' way.
When it became apparent that the floodgates were open, the music industry poured millions of dollars into creating a new format that would not be copyable. They would stop the infringement at its source, by preventing rippers from copying the raw digital audio off a CD and onto a PC. This way it couldn't be compressed into an MP3 and traded. This was the thin edge of the wedge.
What are you buying?
And now, some facts. What do you get when you buy a Copy Controlled(tm) album? It:
- is not a CD.
- is designed to prevent digital copying in all its forms (for legal and illegal purposes).
- does not conform to the CD audio standard.
- intentionally violates the CD standard.
- is not allowed to display the "Compact Disc" or "CD Digital Audio" certification marks.
- will not play in certain players (notably car CD players and some walkmans).
- will only play in a PC running recent versions of Windows or recent versions of Mac OS X
- is designed to not play in a PC running an alternative operating system (such as Linux or OpenBSD)
- discriminates against consumers because of their choice of
- is sold as if it were a true CD (they are sold in the same racks)
- is misrepresenting itself as a real CD
- is treating every consumer as a thief and assuming we are all potential criminals
- prevents the lawful fair use of CDs
For the reasons above, I have decided to boycott all CDs that are Copy Controlled (tm). I urge you to consider the same, and think about just what you are buying next time you are in the record store.