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Get your filthy hands off my CDs

Marc Tokayer, the man behind SafeAudio

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Interview By the middle of next year, the music industry will have put the controversy of BMG's bungled attempt to prevent Natalie Imbruglia's While Lilies Island CD from being copied behind it and will have thoroughly embraced copy-protection technology. Major labels and independents alike will embrace products like Macrovision's SafeAudio and use them to control how fans listen to new songs.

So says one of the minds behind such technology, Marc Tokayer, CEO of TTR Technologies. TTR developed SafeAudio in 1999 and more recently partnered with Macrovision to promote the system to the music industry. However, SafeAudio only became known to music fans when Macrovision and one or more record labels - Tokayer won't say who - released copy-protected CDs on an unsuspecting Californian public.

That release, designed to test whether real music buyers could hear what SafeAudio does to music encoded on CD and how likely their audio equipment would reject the protected disks, was arguably the first inkling most listeners had that the music giants were serious about preventing PC users ripping songs to their hard-drives and - worse - sending those tracks to other users via the Internet.

Sure, the major labels' hired muscle, the Recording Industry Ass. of America, had pursued - and effectively killed - Napster, and MP3.com was a shadow of its former self. But the action taken against these pioneers of online music, like the lawsuits slapped on their successors, KaZaA and MusicCity's Morpheus, were intended to take out the networks that permit the distribution of unauthorised copies. Until the SafeAudio test was announced, the industry's intent to once again tackle piracy at source.

Deja entendu

It has tried before, in the days before the Internet, PC-based CD-R burners and portable MP3 players, but they never took off, largely because they relied on the support of the equipment makers and the consumer electronics industry has never been happy with anything that put customers off buying new toys - well, until its leading players started buying content companies, at any rate. Other techniques, designed to protected CDs directly, failed because too many people could hear imperfections in the playback.

Consequently, hi-fi buffs rose up as one and damned copy protection, and the music and consumer electronics industries decide the time wasn't right. And audiophiles were among the first to criticise the new wave of copy-protection technology, like SafeAudio, Midbar's Cactus Data Shield and SunnComm's MediaCloQ.

They needn't worry about audio quality, says Tokayer. Their listening pleasure won't be compromised, he claims, and, thanks to the enhancements made to SafeAudio in the light of the California test, nor will PC users' desire to maintain archives of songs on their computers, whether they're played back straight off the hard drive or downloaded to portable players. Only those who seek to distribute or copy what they haven't paid for need worry, he believes.

Bad Music Glitch

After the BMG cock-up, he'll forgive PC owning music fans for their scepticism at that claim. BMG, one of the world's Big Five music companies, tried to release Natalie Imbruglia's latest album without warning customers that they were getting a copy-protected CD. Only a Midbar copyright declaration, buried in the small print on the back of the case, gave any indication that there was more to the CD than met the eye. Complaints that the disc wouldn't play properly in some CD and DVD players and drives forced BMG to re-release the album minus the copy-protection. Customers with unplayable discs were given the opportunity to have them replaced.

Tokayer concedes that the music industry does have an issue it must resolve before it can back the widespread adoption of copy-protection technology. The Californian woman suing US independent record label Fahrenheit Records for covertly including copy protection on a disc, thus preventing her from copy songs to her hard drive, has a point, Tokayer says. Consumers have a right to know what the CD they're about to purchase can and cannot do, he says.

Of course, the corollary of that, that all discs simply ship with a 'cannot be copied' label on the front, isn't the solution that most punters want. But Tokayer - who comes over refreshingly free of that rabid hatred, seemingly common among music industry folk, of PC users, who clearly just want to copy songs and not pay a cent for the privilege - reckons he has the answer: CDs that tie into rights management software. That feature, incorporated into SafeAudio's most recent version, 3.0, will let "honest" PC users make personal copies of their CDs and transfer them to their MP3 players.

Like the issue of disk labelling, Tokayer is happy to leave the decision of what music buyers should be allowed to do with their discs to the recording companies. Just because SafeAudio can permit users to make personal copies doesn't mean the record companies will enable that feature.

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