Digital rights management issues persist

Article By : Brian Dipert

The music industry has largely turned its back on digital rights management, but the TV and movie industries continue to pursue it unabashedly.

The music industry has largely turned its back on digital rights management (DRM) as a way to curtail the illegal distribution of copyright-protected digital media, but it recently came back to haunt me.

When it comes to my music tastes, “jam band” is my most consistent go-to, but I go through phases where, for example, all I’ll audition for an extended period of time is bluegrass, or progressive rock, or classical. Techno is another frequent go-to, and John Digweed is one of my favorites.

While he may be less commonly known than more mainstream artists in the genre, such as Daft Punk, deadmau5, Kraftwerk, and Moby, his music has resonated with me ever since I first heard it. After first collecting Digweed’s four-volume Transitions compilation series, I more recently heard of an even earlier album he’d done in collaboration with another modestly-popular techno artist, Sasha (of whom, curiously, I’m not much of a fan regarding his solo work). Renaissance: The Mix Collection, quoting from Wikipedia, is “considered by many to be amongst the greatest mix albums of all time.” Unfortunately, the three-disc set is no longer published; as I write this, there’s a single new set still available on Amazon for $902.81 (!!!). And the MP3 download version, which I happen to be listening to as I type these words, in fact, contains only the first 10 tracks, for some unknown reason.

I dropped my wife a hint that if she were able to track down a gently used copy on Ebay, it’d make for an awesome Christmas present. That she did, from a seller in the UK (Digweed hails from England and is seemingly more popular in Europe than here in the Colonies), for 57.13 GBP (~$79.00 USD) inclusive of shipping. After excitedly opening up my new present on Christmas morning and confirming that both the packaging and the media inside were in seemingly excellent condition, I popped one of the CDs into my laptop’s optical drive, only to quickly experience disappointment.

photo of the front and back cover of Renaissance: The Mix Collections CDs

photo of the inside cover of Renaissance: The Mix Collections CDs

photo of the artwork inside the Renaissance: The Mix Collections CDs

photo of three Renaissance: The Mix Collections CDs in the case

Sometimes a disc (I tried them all) would refuse to play at all, and sometimes it’d get partway through a track before locking up, forcing me to jury-rig a hardware-assisted eject in order to free it from its drive confinement. My initial testing occurred on several different USB-tethered external Apple SuperDrives connected to various Macs, but the integrated optical drive in my wife’s Dell laptop fared no better. And since I was unable to reliably play any of the discs, “ripping” their tracks to digital audio files was a non-starter, too.

I suspected that the optical media was defective, but the seemingly random nature of the lock-up conditions, locations, and outcomes, even with consecutive-play attempts on the same disc and drive, were baffling. On a hunch, I tried playback one more time, on a Blu-ray drive in the living room. Disc 1 played start-to-finish without any problems and navigating around track-to-track was equally unproblematic. Discs 2 and 3 did the same thing. What was going on, I wondered? That’s when I remembered a digital rights management article I’d written two decades earlier (!), and the clouds abruptly parted, allowing the sunlight of insight to shine through.

Quoting from the “Belatedly Closing Pandora’s Box” sidebar in the article:

Both Ç-Dilla Labs with AudioLok and Midbar Tech with Cactus Data Shield have developed copy-protection schemes that, by inserting small amounts of error data, block playback and, therefore, “ripping” of audio CDs on computer CD-ROM drives. According to the manufacturers, dedicated audio-CD players, because of their greater tolerance of media errors, can still play altered audio CDs.

Here’s more, from Wikipedia’s Copy Protection entry:

CD copy protection is achieved by assuming certain feature levels in the drives. The CD Digital Audio is the oldest CD standard and forms the basic feature set beyond which dedicated audio players need no instructions. CD-ROM drives additionally need to support mixed mode CDs (combined audio and data tracks) and multi-session CDs (multiple data recordings each superseding and incorporating data of the previous session). The play preventions in use intentionally deviate from the standards and intentionally include malformed multisession data or similar with the purpose of confusing the CD-ROM drives to prevent correct function. Simple dedicated audio CD players would not be affected by the malformed data since these are for features they do not support—for example, an audio player will not even look for a second session containing the copy protection data.

Similarly, some of you may recall the even more egregious 2005 Sony BMG copy protection rootkit scandal. Generally speaking, such copy protection schemes were more commonly implemented in Europe, where rights holders generally found more friendly governmental ears versus in the United States (although it’s all relative, right?). This particular CD set, copyright 1994, was released by a UK-based independent label called Network Records (the Six6 subsidiary, to be exact), and distributed by Sony Music Operations. It’s anyone’s guess whose DRM was implemented on it, and of course the packaging verbiage is of no help; it doesn’t even indicate that DRM is present at all. But that DRM is present: of this I have no doubt.

So here I sit with a three-audio-CD set containing excellent music that I’m only able to enjoy in my living room. I can’t, for example, play the CDs on any of my computers, or “rip” the tracks and get them on my legacy iPod and other portable music players. And although my car still includes an in-dash CD player (most don’t nowadays) I’m scared to try slipping a disc in it, for fear it’ll become permanently stuck inside. Again quoting from Wikipedia’s coverage:

In practice, results vary wildly. CD-ROM drives may be able to correct the malformed data and still play them to an extent that depends on the make and version of the drive. On the other hand, some audio players may be built around drives with more than the basic features required for audio playback. Some car radios with CD playback, portable CD players, CD players with additional support for data CDs containing MP3 files, and DVD players have had problems with these CDs.

My only recourse, ironically, might be (if I wasn’t such a copyright rule-follower) to browse a BitTorrent-based or other file-sharing site and see if someone else succeeded in “ripping” the files somehow (or alternatively doing a bit-exact copy using an audio CD player’s S/PDIF digital output, or something like that).

Admittedly, my situation represents a 25+ year old experiment that the music industry has wisely moved away from, to at least some degree. Copy protection has largely disappeared from audio CDs and purchased digital audio tracks (thanks in no small part to Apple’s “Thoughts on Music” pressure on the labels). And although subscription music services that support downloads for offline playback, such as Tidal, still DRM-encrypt their content, I’ve never had an issue with that. After all, in such cases you’re only renting access to the music; conversely, when you purchase a track, you’re still not buying the music itself, only a lifelong license to access the music, a more subtle distinction than you might think at first glance, albeit still an important one.

But DRM was comprehended from day one with the TV and movie (i.e., video) content providers, who learned well the lessons of their music predecessors (often from sibling divisions of the same corporations). Even if you “own” a movie on DVD or Blu-ray, DRM precludes you from playing it anywhere you want on any piece of capability-compatible piece of equipment you might own, because in the process, heaven forbid, you might share it with others. Yes, DRM-circumventing software exists, but its installation (not to mention its use) is legally dubious even in the most consumer-liberal parts of the world. Needing to buy (or rent) a title multiple times so that I can, for example, play it both on my iPad and the media streamer in my living room is frankly infuriating. And the situation doesn’t promise to get better any time soon.

Sound off in the comments with your thoughts!

This article was originally published on EDN.

Brian Dipert is Editor-in-Chief of the Embedded Vision Alliance, and a Senior Analyst at BDTI and Editor-in-Chief of InsideDSP, the company’s online newsletter.

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