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Is the Genie Already Out of the Bottle With MP3s? Print E-mail
Friday, 25 April 2003
I have recently had a number of discussions with people of influence in the record and pro audio industries about the format war and how important copy protection is for the record labels. Everyone agrees the winner of the format war will come from strong support (far stronger than we see today) from the major labels and nearly everyone I speak with also agrees that the format that will ultimately win is the one with the best copy protection.

Copy protection on traditional CDs was a functional nightmare and while labels can encode the hybrid layer of an SACD with CD copy protection, they are likely to run into the many of the same compatibility issues that was faced with copy protecting CDs including the fact they don’t play well in computers of all varieties, especially Macs. Ironically, pure non-hybrid SACDs are very hard (notice I didn’t say impossible) to digitally crack. DVD-Audio discs are hard to digitally crack for the general public that don’t have the needed DVD hacker software but also not impossible. In comparison to a CD, hybrid SACDs are equally as easy to crack but DVD-Audio and non-hybrid SACDs are much more secure in terms of digital copies. The labels like this quite a bit. But people are forgetting one simple detail in the copy protection debate. If you want to copy a song you can do it easily with the analog output of your DVD-Audio or SACD player right into your computer’s analog input. Is it high resolution or studio grade audio? In most cases no, but neither are MP3s. With all of the talk about copy protection and how it is holding up the development of the new formats, the simple fact is both are pretty easy to copy for anyone if they are so motivated and have simple software.

But there are bigger issues to worry about for the music business that copy protection. What if every song is already ripped to MP3 and being shared at some level? Even if the RIAA shuts down every peer to peer system out there are still millions of iPods, MP3 players and computer hard drives loaded with thousands of (crappy sounding) copies of songs. How can the RIAA keep one person from selling their iPod loaded with songs to their buddy or someone on eBay? How can the music industry keep people from bringing their 200 Gig Firewire hard drive over to their friend’s houses and sharing files that way? Within 20 minutes, you could transfer every MP3 in your collection to your friend’s hard drive. Then they get stored on his iPod and so on.

The genie might be out of the bottle forever with MP3. We made a big deal about how Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon on Hybrid SACD is easy to rip from the hybrid layer. But one also might also argue, who cares? Every song on Dark Side is likely ripped tens of thousands of times on each peer to peer system as well as on the hard drives of many a Pink Floyd fan. Perhaps the more important concept is adding value to the album and selling it over and over again – a business model that has served the music industry well over the years. The Dark Side SACD has a killer surround sound mix that demands attention from millions of fans. The fact it has backwards compatibility to hundreds of millions of CD players only makes the disc more desirable to consumers – and that is the real goal with any new format.

In the end, whichever new format wins the format war will have some sort of system that protects the content of the disc from digital copies. But the copy protection may have less to do with the success of the format and the music business than the quality of the albums being released in high resolution surround and stereo. Great records and enticing added values make people want to buy music. Instead of worrying about stopping the leak found on CDs, it is time to adopt a new system that brings more value to the music buying consumer that is so compelling that the mainstream consumer starts to stick their nose up at the lousy sound of MP3s like they would working on a 100 MHz computer.

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