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The Digital Beat: Scrambled Music Stinks Like Eggs

August 22, 2001 12:00 AM ET

Despite the fact that Napster traffic is down by sixty-five percent, the big guns in the music industry are still hell bent on making sure that surfers stop swapping/stealing their tunes. The latest move: Labels including Warner Music, Vivendi Universal, Sony, and EMI are developing encryption technology to prevent listeners from ripping/copying CDs into MP3s. The idea is to essentially scramble the music in such a way that a CD player inside a computer would be unable to read the songs. Shrewd move? Hardly. Scrambled music is a misguided and reactionary strategy that would stink worse than hot rotten eggs.

Here's why: First off, what's the point of making it impossible to play a CD on a computer? Many people, myself included, like to pop, say, Amnesiac into the platter while we're checking e-mail. Computers now have elaborate multimedia sound systems (woofers, etc.) which exist specifically because so many of us now play our CDs while we're hunched over the desktop at work. What are we supposed to do, go back to schlepping in our boom boxes?

Listeners like these won't be the only ones to suffer. How about all the big companies developing the speakers systems: Bose, Altec Lansing, and even Sony, one of the companies behind the new encryption technologies? And Sony's not the only one potentially shooting itself in the foot. In order to listen to CDs in a computer, someone needs a software player like Winamp -- a program created by Nullsoft, owned by AOL Time Warner, another soldier in the encryption wars.

Here's another problem: Scrambled CDs will be easy to get around. The music execs are deluded if they think they can stop the bootleggers from a good rip. So what if a Staind fan can't just pop a CD in a computer and make an MP3? All he has to do is connect the stereo to the PC and rip it that way.

There's even one more sticky issue: Whether or not the scrambled CDs will be able to be read by stereo players as well. Even the encryption companies themselves are speculative on this matter, reporting that there will be at least a small percentage of players that won't be able to read the new wares. As many listeners might have already discovered, that number is probably low (how many times have you tried to play a CD that your buddy has burned for you only to find that it doesn't work on your stereo at all?)

Who stands to profit most from this while the kinks are being worked out? Yep, the encryption companies. Companies with names like Macrovision and Midbar Technologies are hot as can be right now as they pawn their services to panicky labels. Thus far, about 1 million of these encrypted audio CDs have been released in Europe. They may be coming to the States soon whether you like it or not.

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