European Consumer Group Sues Over CD Copy Protection

A European consumer group is suing major record labels Sony, EMI, BMG and Universal over a CD copy-protection technology that reportedly blocks playback of the labels’ releases on some devices. Claiming it has received some 200 complaints from European users, Belgium’s Test-Achats announced the suit on behalf of consumers and is asking the record labels to stop producing the reportedly problematic CDs.

In response, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) — the international equivalent of the Recording Industry Association of America, representing record labels across the globe — called the lawsuit baseless and said in a statement, “European law is clear that record companies and other copyright holders have the right to protect their works through technical means.”

The suit, which is the first of its kind and is viewed as the biggest challenge to CD copy protection in Europe, marks the vast difference between the U.S. and European markets, according to Yankee Group senior analyst Mike Goodman.

“The U.S. and Europe are very different when it comes to copyright protection and encrypted CDs,” Goodman told TechNewsWorld. “It’s not done in the U.S. out of fear of consumer backlash.”

Ticked Off by Tech

In Europe, however, CD consumers face “aggressive attempts” at copy control and prevention, according to Goodman, who called the consumer lawsuit “an American response to the issue” in Europe.

Test-Achats, also known as Test-Aankoop, gained notoriety for raising issues with what it called “unsafe” batteries released by mobile device giant Nokia, which has vehemently disputed the claims. Now, the Dutch consumer advocacy group has turned its attention to CD copy protection after reporting receipt of numerous complaints from consumers.

The copy-protection scheme in question has been used by record companies in Europe for more than two years as they have battled losses to piracy, which IFPI blamed for US$4.6 billion in lost sales last July.

Microsoft-Motored Change?

While he called it a nonissue in the United States, Goodman said U.S. residents might see an increase in CD copy-protection technologies, particularly with companies such as Microsoft pushing digital rights management (DRM) software and giving it away to record companies.

Goodman said such DRM technology — which provides encrypted files for playback on portable devices but prevents ripping and copying — is attractive to copyright owners who are eager to protect content without suffocating users and their desire to play music on mobile devices.

“The big thing that prevents it in the U.S. is fair-use laws,” Goodman said of CD copy protection.

Waste of Time

Record companies and other content and copyright owners have struggled to protect CD content in the past by releasing technologies that have fouled playback or that were easily circumvented — in one case by marking the edges of the protected CD with a felt-tip marker to bypass the protection.

Late last year, Sony introduced a new copy-protection scheme that enticed users with bonus content, an effort that Gartner research director Mike McGuire said might add value in consumers’ minds but could cause problems based on the electronics company’s linkage between content and device.

“I think they may be pushing a couple of the wrong buttons,” McGuire told TechNewsWorld. “[Digital rights management] is not a bad thing as long as it doesn’t interfere. Linking the content with the same manufacturer’s device is going to mean some very serious issues, though.”

Goodman, who referred to Microsoft’s copy-protection efforts as a classic company strategy to “give away development to force an issue” on the consumer side, said the copy-protection efforts might not be worth the type of lawsuits launched by consumers in Europe, resentment over limited use and the high probability of getting cracked.

“Ultimately, I think it is going to be a waste of time,” he said. “If someone wants to crack it, they’re going to crack it.”

Copy-Protected Confusion

U.S. CD purchasers might face fewer copy-protection schemes and technologies than their counterparts in Europe, but Electronic Frontier Foundation staff attorney Gwen Hinze told TechNewsWorld that the number of copy-locked CDs circulating in the United States is a figure under dispute.

“There’s quite a bit of disagreement on the level of copy-protected CDs that are in the U.S.,” Hinze said.

One copy-protected Charlie Pride CD in the United States that was unplayable was also the basis of a lawsuit against SunnComm and others over the anticopy technology. The case was settled nearly two years ago.

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