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Music labels out to burn digital pirates Add to ...

Faced with declining sales, the Canadian recording industry has decided to use a new weapon in the fight against CD burners and Napster-style on-line file sharing.

At least two Canadian record companies will begin testing copyright-protected CDs this summer, using the promotional teasers and advance CDs of coming albums that historically are sent to newspapers, magazines, TV music shows and radio stations.

If the tests prove successful, copyright-protected discs could show up en masse in the country's record stores and CD clubs as early as this fall. "And they will be clearly and prominently labelled as such," a record-label executive said last month.

But record executives in Canada and the United States are worried about possible consumer backlash. If music-lovers conclude that the sound quality of copyright-protected discs is inferior, or the discs "gum up" the CD players in their cars or the hard drives in their computers, or they see the technology as a Big Brother-style intrusion and restriction by impersonal, profit-hungry labels, the conventions that have governed the commercial recording industry for decades could be further eroded.

The $1.4-billion industry says it needs the protection because its commercial viability is being undermined. The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry said that since the mid-to-late 1990s, Canada has consistently led the world on a percentage basis in the year-by-year decline of sales of recorded music, dropping in 2000 and 2001 a combined 18 per cent. Last year, the Canadian Recording Industry Association reported that its members lost $30-million to pirated CDs.

Canada won't be alone in the copyright-protection move. CDs released in the United States by some of the major-label parent companies of Canadian firms have used the technology. For example, the More Fast and Furious soundtrack issued by Universal Music is copyright-protected in the U.S., but the Canadian version isn't.

Copy protection typically involves applying a hidden "signature" to the disc at the mastering stage to prevent playback on personal computers. Gingerly, quietly and selectively, U.S. labels such as BMG and Universal began to issue copyright-protected CDs last fall. This was in pronounced contrast to Europe, especially Germany, where high-circulation CDs -- such as A New Day Has Come by Celine Dion, Shakira's Laundry Service and J to Tha L-O! by Jennifer Lopez --have been copyright-protected by the millions since October.

BMG's English division got a taste of what consumer troubles could arise late last year when it issued a recall of copies of White Lilies Island, the latest release from Natalie Imbruglia, after scores of buyers said they couldn't play the album, which had copyright protection, on conventional players.

Sony recently said it soon would use copy-protection in Canada, "with promotional advances of upcoming albums." A spokesperson for BMG Music Canada said last week that copyright-protected promotional material from the label "is starting to flow through the pipeline," but stressed that it doesn't include the singles (as opposed to full-length CDs) shipped to radio stations for airplay, nor are there plans to extend it "to commercial product at this time."

Not all the majors are going the copyright-protection route. Warner Music Canada spokesman Steve Waxman said recently that his company won't -- at least not yet. "I don't think there's any method of copyright protection that really works right now. We're going to hold off until there's something that works and doesn't [anger]the consumer."

Reports out of Europe last month claimed that Sony's "key2audio" technology, developed in Germany, could be disabled simply by taking a felt-tip marker to the edge of the shiny side of an apparently protected disc. The so-called security track that is meant to foil ripping and burning by a computer typically is on a disc's outer rim, according to some computer users.

Laurie Jakobsen, a spokeswoman for Sony Media Entertainment in New York, said last month that her company wouldn't comment on the technology it would use to protect its CDs in Canada and the United States. Clearly, she said, hackers and consumers will try to foil the code, but those efforts could result "in permanent damage to the disc, and possible damage to the playback device."

She acknowledged that record companies are wrestling with the practices of some consumers who want to play their CDs on more than one machine, including personal computers. Sony and the other labels are working on "second-session technologies" that would permit a single copy of a CD to be burned for playback. However, the digital encryption on each track on a CD would be in a so-called "locked format" to prevent repeat burning and copying.

Recently an article by Rolling Stone contributor David Kushner on the magazine's on-line Web site intimated that digital downloaders are starting to feel guilty about their illicit activity -- but, admittedly, not so guilty as to give up the practice entirely.

Kushner recommends what he calls the "Three-by-Three Plan" to both soften the guilt and turn the Internet from being the source of all songs to the 21st century's equivalent of the record-store listening booth. "If you download three or more songs from the same album and listen to them three or more times, then go buy the CD," he reasons. "Three really is the magic number for determining whether or not an album is worth buying. If there's only one good song, then screw it -- download the single. But if there are three good songs, usually that means the rest of the album will at least bear a few decent tracks."

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