Sony-BMG: “What matters to us is the consumer experience. So we’re going to make it worse.”

I wish I’d stayed in bed this morning – yet another news article has got me foaming at the mouth. This time it’s Reuters, who reports that Sony-BMG is getting serious about copy protection on CDs. Apparently it’s because customers are crying out for CDs that look like normal CDs, cost the same as normal CDs, but don’t work as well as normal CDs. Of course!

The news isn’t all bad, though: to compensate for selling you a sub-standard product, Sony-BMG will give you additional content, or as I prefer to call it, “crap”:

Sony BMG expects that by year’s end a substantial number of its U.S. releases will employ either Sunncomm’s newly enhanced MediaMax or First4Internet’s XCP to address piracy concerns. No matter which technology a CD uses, it will include such extras as photo galleries, enhanced liner notes and links to other features.

As Sony BMG’s Jordan Katz explains:

…the company wants to alert the industry that it is implementing the content-protection technology, because extensive consumer research indicates widespread customer acceptance of it.

BMG has used MediaMax on a number of titles, including Velvet Revolver’s “Contraband” and Anthony Hamilton’s solo album. In all, it has shipped more than 5.5 million content-enhanced and protected discs, which have been met with positive consumer reactions, according to Katz.

So in one paragraph there’s “widespread customer acceptance”, and in the other there’s “positive consumer reactions”. I call shenanigans, because Sony BMG is combining two very different things.

First of all, acceptance isn’t the same thing as approval. The copy-protected Velvet Revolver album reached number one not because it was copy protected, but because people bought the CD without considering copy protection; remember that the overwhelming majority of music buyers don’t faff around with digital music or iPods. So the album was bought in huge numbers *despite* being copy protected, rather than *because* it was copy protected. It’s only when those consumers get on board the digital music bus that they’ll discover they’ve paid for crippled CDs.

Meanwhile, hardcore users could bypass the copy protection on the Velvet Revolver album with ease. Is it available for free on the various file sharing networks? What do you think?

There’s another issue with the copy protection. The end user licence agreement on the US Velvet Revolver album contained this little gem:

Your rights to use the Digital Content are conditioned on your ownership of a license to use and possession of the original Compact Disc (CD) media and are terminated in the event you no longer own or possess the original CD media.

In other words, if you accept the licence – which you must do in order to play the music – then you agree that you won’t make a backup of your music. If you break or lose the CD and don’t delete the music from your computer, you’re a criminal. Nice.

Secondly, the “positive consumer reactions” are almost certainly to do with extra content. If someone were to ask you:

Would you like CDs that gave you extra goodies such as videos or photos?

Most people would say yes. However, if the question was:

Would you like CDs that give you extra goodies, but which won’t let you play them on your iPod, which might not work in your car stereo and which are likely to become unplayable much more quickly than normal CDs?

then the answer would be very different. So for example:

Would you like a free pint of lager?

Yes please!

How about I give you a free pint of lager? All you need to do to get it is to let me kick you repeatedly in the testicles for eight hours.

No thanks!

The latest generation of copy protection will let you copy a CD three times, but again there’s more to this than meets the eye: unless the technology is very different from the current versions I’ve seen, the music you’ll be able to copy will be an inferior, compressed version rather than the CD audio. And as most copy protection systems use Windows Media, that means that the record labels won’t let you play the music in the audio software of your choice, and they won’t let you transfer the music to your iPod. If I’m wrong, please let me know.

Even if you don’t plan to transfer CDs to your iPod, copy protection makes CDs less valuable. The technology adds errors to the disc in order to prevent computer drives from reading the music, and those errors make the CDs much more likely to fail in normal CD players. In the current issue of PC Plus, I’ve got a big article about Digital Rights Management technology; it includes a vivid illustration of the problems with CD copy protection:

In one particularly memorable instance in February 2004, the BBC radio programme You And Yours discovered that some copy protected CDs wouldn’t play in Volkswagens, as there were too many (deliberate) errors on the discs for the CD players to handle. On the show, a record industry spokesperson blamed Volkswagen and said “manufacturers must be aware of specifications that have changed considerably since 1980.” As Volkswagen pointed out, the Red Book CD standard hasn’t changed at all and its players are fully Red Book compliant; the problem is with the crippled CDs, not the in-car players.

From the consumer’s perspective, copy protection technology offers no benefits whatsoever – and lots of negatives. Sticking a few photos and liner notes on a crippled CD doesn’t compensate for that, and Sony BMG is being very sneaky by suggesting that approval of extra content is therefore approval of copy protection. If you want to keep your music collection legal but don’t want to be locked into a world where record companies dictate the hardware you use to listen to your tunes, then there’s only one solution: avoid Sony releases and give your cash to labels with a more enlightened attitude towards their customers.

Update, 1 March

Copyfight links to an analysis of consumer attitudes towards copy-protected CDs. It seems that whether you rip music or not, two-thirds of people would rather have a more expensive, unprotected CD than a cheaper, copy-protected one. Hardly “widespread customer acceptance”.