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Talkin' Smack: Copy That

On security scams and loopholes By Dave Nagel
You may be aware that CDs encoded with Sony's key2audio copy protection scheme are designed not to work on computers and may even prevent you from ejecting the disc once it's inserted into your Mac. You might have also read of late that this super-duper CD copy protection scheme has been cracked by somebody using nothing more than a felt-tip pen to overwrite the copy protection data. What does this go to show?

Two things: First, if you like Sony recording artists like Celine Dion, you've gotten what you deserve. I hope Sony's copy-protection has broken every CD player in your house to prevent you from playing that awful harpy music ever again. Why do I care? Listen, we're all familiar with the laws of thermodynamics. One day, the music that Sony produces will make its way into space and reach an alien culture. Once that alien culture hears those sappy Celine Dion songs, they'll have no choice but to wipe out the human race.

Now, I have children, and I do care something for the human race, being a marginal member of it myself. But in this case, I'd have to take the side of the aliens. No question.

However, if we do stop playing this kind of music, then, while the aliens are on their way to destroy us, they will stop receiving those Celine Dion transmissions and will likely conclude that we are no longer worthy of annihilation. Alien problem solved. (Granted, this is only a stop-gap measure in the much larger issue of companies like Sony capitalizing on people's poor tastes in music, but it's a step in the right direction.)

Second, this is just yet more evidence that all forms of security--copy protection or otherwise--are scams that do nothing more than get in the way of users. Whether it's airport security or CD copy protection, it's nothing more than an intrusion into our lives that does nothing to hinder anybody who's serious about getting around the security feature.

Look, I'm in the intellectual property business. I'm a writer and artist, and my work has been ripped off many times in the past. Really, I'm not just saying that. It's happened. So what am I going to do, place copy protection on all of my articles that requires you to agree to my usage terms and make you enter a password each time you want to read a story? I could. But I don't. And why? It's a ridiculous inconvenience to you, and it doesn't stop thievery.

Look at Macrovision. There's a joke. Consumers can't have two devices hooked up in their entertainment center without having to deal with that ridiculous copy protection. Meanwhile, do you think this stops piracy? Hell no. Replication facilities that have the technology and means of distribution for pirating media on a large scale also have the technology to get around copy protection. When large-scale pirate operations copy Macrovision-protected media, the protection just gets copied along with it, providing copy protection on the pirated media as well as the original media. Meanwhile, I, as the guy who goes out and pays $15 to $60 for a DVD, have to disconnect devices from my system in order to watch a movie without having the picture fade in and out. There's a scam that brings about $100 million a year into Macrovision's coffers. And who pays for that?

Think of eBooks. You know how you get around that copy protection? Transcription. What's going to stop that? It's more time-consuming than traditional computer software piracy, but it's an option that can never be eliminated by any means of copy protection. I've never seen an eBook reader, and I have no idea what books are available in eBook format--or even what an eBook format is. But I do know that people are capable of reading and typing at the same time.

And what kind of a concept is audio copy protection? It's called recording to a tape deck, Sony. Duh. Anybody with a set of stereo-out jacks can copy audio, and at a much higher quality than what you might get in a pirated MP3.

(I'm not even going to get into the ridiculous nature of plagiarism concepts because this is a legal/business issue, not a right/wrong issue. Let's just say that if you think you're on high moral ground when you've been ripped off, you're not. Unless you've invented your own language, alphabet, instruments, notes, color space, etc., anything you write or produce has been written or produced before. Don't fool yourself.)

Now, we who produce creative works certainly do have to worry about content theft--some of you much more than I, to be certain--from a financial perspective. Our content is all we have. But at what point do we cause users so much inconvenience that they just throw their hands up in the air and give up? When do I, as a consumer, realize that things have gone way too far and that the world has turned into an awful place barely worth living in?

A. When a CD gets stuck in my computer owing to some lame copy protection scheme.

B. When I realize it's a Celine Dion CD.

You copy that, Sony?

Contact the author: Dave Nagel is the producer of Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; host of several World Wide User Groups, including Synthetik Studio Artist, Adobe Photoshop, Adobe InDesign, Adobe LiveMotion, Creative Mac and Digital Media Designer; and executive producer of the Digital Media Net family of publications. You can reach him at [email protected].

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