CD Copy-Protection Technologies


Alana Lowe-Petraske (UK)


This paper examines the implications of the recent stealthy introduction of Copy-protected recordings onto the international music market in terms of 1)the rhetoric of internet piracy, 2)the primacy of economic imperative over privacy and public domain concerns, and 3) the social and aesthetic aspects of compressed audio files for music use, the album format, and genre taxonomy. Finally, by way of an open-ended conclusion, the pragmatic motivation for the use of such technologies is inflected with the abstract relation of musical sound and noise over time.

The family of CD copy-protection technologies such as Cactus Data Protection Shield function by strategically adding extra data to the disc that is corrected by the error-corrective facility standard to audio CD players but is read and reproduced as non-music data by a PC, producing a ripped CD that is full of extraneous non-music noise. The CD format’s dual hallmarks of durability and compatibility over time, geography, brand and device have been eroded recklessly by these proprietary attempts. Further, as disclosed in the Patent application for the Cactus Product, this sort of technology only provides roughly equivalent audio quality and has the potential to damage stereo hardware.
The relative silence surrounding the release of this material onto the market (commercial as well as promotional)suggests not the pseudo-scientific approach to market-testing implied by the record companies. Rather, it suggests a misguided hope that music consumers, digital rights activists, civil libertarians, and Philips Electronics, the owner of the CD-logo, would simply fail to notice. In fact the vociferous response, ranging from disgruntled consumers to the format-safeguarder Philips has been deafening online, though virtually silent in the mainstream media.

In its ‘war on piracy’ (after Stallman, Barbrook), the Music Industry has conscripted the various notions of authorship and creativity to further its profit imperative and protect its right to trade in music recording copyrights(Marshall, Woodmansee). The history of the authorship/copyright relation can be aptly depicted as a conscription of copyright for the cause of redefining the author in the wake of economic shifts and the decline of aristocratic patronage. The codified criteria of originality (after Young) is no long-standing tradition and the characterisation of use as theft is persuasive rhetorical flourish. However, consumers do not feel they are stealing the just rewards due the artist, they feel instead that the corporate record industry sets such unreasonably high prices for CD recordings, only to sneak ‘corrupted’ recordings onto the market at the expense of consumer satisfaction, trust, and loyalty.

In the extreme case of the copy-protection stealth, economic imperative has ridden roughshod over issues of privacy and the public domain. As the less-centralised progeny of Napster such as KazAa and Gnutella effectively disperse the activity of compressed audio file sharing online, the inherent conflict between the ‘gift culture’ online and the economic realities of the corporate sphere comes into sharp relief. Any attempts to control ‘peer-to-peer’ exchange of music online would necessitate a ‘top-down’ management — the ‘digital panoptican’ (Rheingold). Even industry attempts to appease users who desire mp3 format music for ‘space-shifting’ for example, require online registration, an awkward encroachment onto the relative anonymity basic to Net users.

The paper will finally examine the aesthetic implications of this copy-protection technology in terms of access, use-practices, and the theoretical relation of musical sound and noise (Attali). Access is in itself an ethical issue and one with profound implications. Increased access in developed economies to cheap CD burners means many individuals who rip their own CDs may not be technologically educated or savvy at all — these individuals will not search for a ‘workaround’ indefinitely and will be discouraged from copying relatively easily. Their access-priviledge and position on the fortunate side of the ‘digital divide’ is tempered by the industry’s proprietary attempt. However, those with enough technological fluency and determination to ‘workaround’ the duplication barrier will clear the hurdle with relative ease, resulting in a scenario where those with sufficient technological skill and techo-cultural orientation will continue to have access to the use-freedoms inherent with digital audio files while the rest will be bound to 1) the album as a format, 2) passivity as a listening method, 3)consumption, rather than self-production of accompanying visual or informational paratext (after Genette) and 4) the chance to collaborate online and transform musics independent from the author-owner gaze.