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New copy-protected CD technology to arrive

A new kind of copy-protected music CD will likely hit U.S. shelves early next year, as record label SonyBMG experiments with a technology created by British developer First 4 Internet, ZDnet reported.

Several major music labels have already used a version of the British company’s technology on prerelease compact discs distributed for review and other early-listening purposes, including on recent albums from Eminem and U2.

The releases for the retail market, expected early in 2005, will be the first time the Sony music label issues copy-protected CDs in the U.S. market, although the company’s other divisions have done so in other regions. BMG, Sony’s new corporate sibling, has been more aggressive, with a handful of protected CDs released last year.

A SonyBMG representative declined to comment on the plans. First 4 Internet plans to release a consumer version of its technology with one major label in the United States, but he declined to identify the label.

The new SonyBMG experiments are another sign that copy protection on music CDs may be moving closer to the mainstream U.S. market. The practice is much more common in European and Asian markets.

For several years, the major record labels have sought a way to protect CDs against unrestricted copying and “ripping,” or transforming songs into files such as MP3s that can be swapped widely online. Early experiments proved unpopular, prompting reports that the discs could not play in certain kind of stereos, or might even damage computers.

The past year has seen resurgent signs of interest from the major labels, however. A watershed moment in the United States came when the BMG-released Velvet Revolver album reached the top of the industry’s sales charts, despite being clearly marked as copy-protected. Industry insiders said that helped assuage some boardroom concerns about potential consumer backlash.

Questions remain about the appropriate technology to use, however. The technology from Sunncomm, used by BMG in the United States, can be fairly easily disabled simply by pressing a computer’s “Shift” key while loading. Although label officials have said that’s enough to deter casual pirates, the industry wants to avoid that kind of simple work-around.

It also may be a tricky job to make rules associated with copy-protected discs match those associated with songs purchased from online stores such as Napster or Apple Computer’s iTunes. Those stores allow their customers to burn CDs that can then be copied without restriction. By contrast some labels want to limit the number of times a copied CD can be duplicated again—a technology called “secure burning.”

First 4 Internet’s entry into the market marks a potentially new twist on the basic technology, however. The technology wraps ordinary song files in strong encryption, but in a way that still allows regular CD players to read them. Another part of the disc contains data files that help improve protection.

The company has worked particularly closely on prereleases in the U.S. market with Universal Music. First 4 Internet’s U.S. representative said the copy-protection technology has been included on a number of extremely high-profile CDs while in the review and demo stage, without being broken.

Analysts remain skeptical that labels will ultimately launch copy-protected discs on a widespread level in the United States, citing continued consumer opposition and the delicate technological balancing act between strong protection and universal compatibility with CD players.

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