Copy Protected Audio CDs

The RIAA has been making a large noise about people illicitly copying CDs and the financial strain and losses that has placed on their members (the record companies) and the artists represented through them. As with pretty much everyone else I know, I support the musicians' right to money for work they've written and performed. What I don't support is unneccessary straitjacketing of the consumer in their ongoing attempts to reduce copying. I really, really don't like copy protected CDs. This rant covers why, and, just as importantly, why it's pointless.

I've spent quite a few years listening to radio, TV, borrowed LPs, tapes and CDs, and most recently, downloaded MP3s, in order to evaluate whether I want to buy the music. If I do, I buy the music -- assuming it's actually available anywhere. Much time has been spent combing second hand stores, jumble sales, garage sales, online auction systems, and retail stores to locate discs I've liked. The music industry has definitely lost money from my evaluations and second hand buying. They get nothing from a second hand store nor do they when I opt not to buy a CD because I've heard the tracks and decided I didn't care for the content. To me as the consumer, I have no concern for the profitability of the music industry. It's my money to spend as I see fit. From their perspective, this is life or death -- they exist to make money as any other business does. It is therefore in their interest to maximize profits; to gouge the consumer as far as they can without losing the consumer altogther.

On the flip side, I've also bought CDs on spec from shops to find that they were not to my taste: of these, none are returnable. Even with the new copy protection techniques, they're still not. Listening stations, while a good idea, are invariably inconvenient. Low bitrate and limited tasters from online websites are again a step forward, but still too limited to get a good feeling of what's expected. MP3.com's business plan was perhaps the closest to what I wanted -- full evaluation versions at a decent bit rate, but still sub-CD quality. The shortcoming there was that was *all* they sold; the discs one could order were written from the MP3 samples rather than derived from a full CD quality source; not acceptable to one who likes to listen to music in as fine a quality as possible, as conveniently as possible. One may trump the other on occasion, but I prefer to be the one who decides.

Once I have the CDs, I always convert them to MP3 at a high bitrate for my convenience. I listen to them at work, at home, on my PDA and in the car. I like having the entire CD collection available to hand without having to wander through bookshelves to find the original discs. I like having a shuffle play that can randomize through over 13,000 tracks. I like not damaging the originals or losing them.

The summary of that is this: the lowest quality I'm willing to pay for is CD quality. MP3s, even at high bitrates, are not. I like MP3s for the convenience of access and I'm quite capable of making them myself, but I will not buy them. When the next big audio compression scheme comes in, I cannot improve the quality by resampling; I *have* to go back to the source. If my source is MP3, anything further will be pointless and I will not benefit from the process. This is why I always buy the CDs -- I perceive them to have high quality audio, be relatively future proof and not dependent on limited lifespan computer formats or players and platforms. Copy protecting CDs could prevent me from following this tack.

Keeping this in mind, I picked up a couple of copy protected audio CDs -- the ones with the little "c" in a triangle in a "c" graphics.

The good news is that they can be ripped to a harddrive; the bad news is that it's somewhat fiddly.

People on the various band mailing lists were pretty vociferous about this tendency to "copy-protect" the CDs. Apparently any bit-for-bit CD copier won't think twice about copying them; they just do it and leave the CD copy protection intact on the copy; i.e. entirely usable on a CD player. Frankly that strikes me as defeating the principal purpose of the whole exercise. However, I'm just going to dwell on the copy protection mechanism and how to create an MP3 image out of it.

As is right now, the CD has two table of contents. The first is the proper one; the second is a scrambled one. Most modern PC CD and DVD drives will attempt to read the second -- much as a multisession CD is created. When you put this into a computer, the TOC will look truly screwy with data and audio tracks all over the place of different sizes. You can't work with this. To get around this, the "PC Compatible" aspect of the CD kicks in -- it loads in a custom audio player which will access the data track and play fairly low quality digital audio versions of the songs hidden in the data track. Since you have to install the extra software to make it work and what you get out of it is pretty miserable, and you can't use preferred playback tools such as WinAMP or even WMP, you don't want to go this route.

Some software, such as PlexTools which is bundled with European PlexWriters (which I couldn't get my hands on), will just disable the second TOC and allow normal ripping of the CD. The older Plextor Manager 2000 Audio Ripper will actually show the correct TOC, but then fails to read the audio tracks. Other pieces of software, such as EAC or AudioGrabber (which I did use), will actually rebuild the TOC from the tracks found on disk and give a proper track listing that can then be used.

I then ran into an unexpected problem. On my Win2K system with a Plextor 12/10/32S drive, the computer crashed every time I tried to even put the CD in. Bad, bad, bad. I moved over to my older Win98 system with a Plextor 8/4/32A drive and that was quite happy to read the CD using AudioGrabber. I ripped the CD to MP3 (took a while on a P2/333 system) and started listening to the results. About 15 seconds into each and every track was a frame skip. For the uninitiated, this sounds like a blip in the audio as some data is omitted. Fortunately this is remedied by setting the audio ripper to use "dynamic sych width" instead of the default "buffered burst copy", although I had to restart sampling from scratch.

I imagine this whole process will get more complicated as the record companies get into a war of escalation with people trying to listen to their music in more than just the one format, but for the moment it's quite manageable. I'm just rather irritated that I need to jump through these hoops to simply listen to music I've paid for in the format I want. A company that does not sell me what I want -- or at least not something I can fiddle with until I get what I want out of it -- will not get my business. With these last two purchases, I've sent off email to the respective labels stating this. They'll probably ignore me, but at least I've tried to tell them why I think they're going wrong rather than merely rant into the void.

Copy protecting CDs is futile not just because the protection can be circumvented, but because it is not what the music purchaser wants or will accept. A business with no one to buy product is not a business for long.

To paraphrase: "I am consumer, hear me ka-ching."

CDs tested: Delerium's "Chimera" (Nettwerk) and Sarah Brightman's "Harem" (EMI Canada)


This page last updated: 203/06/12. For comments on this rant, please use this form. For more rants, go here.