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Marc Tokayer interview – part two

Marc Tokayer, the man behind SafeAudio

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Interview Back to page 1

Up to scratch?
But it's not just the freedom to make personal copies that worries CD buyers. Since SafeAudio intentionally corrupts the music data stored on an encrypted CD, surely that reduces the lifespan of the disc? CD players incorporate sophisticated error correction algorithms to eliminate the noise introduced by scratches and muck on a disc's surface. But beyond a certain level of noise, such mechanisms cease to work. Adding noise, as SafeAudio does, would seem to bring that point closer.

Tokayer claims not. SafeAudio changes the music data at the bit level, flipping a fraction of a disc's billions of 1s and to 0s. That "very subtle" degree of data corruption, while enough to block an attempt to copy a track onto a hard drive, won't affect the quality of the playback or affect the disc's physical playability. The noise induced by dirt and scratched easily drowns out the noise inherent in the copy-protected data.

And he's quick to point out that the number of discs taken back to stores during last summer's testing in California was no higher than labels would expect from unprotected CDs. That said, no one knew which discs were protected, and behind Tokayer's comment that some listeners tend to hear non-existent audio artefacts and so reject discs they know have copy-protection there's a real sense that it might be better to keep users in the dark. That may not be Tokayer's view, but it's not hard to imagine his customers coming to that conclusion.

Double bypass

If they do, a legion of hackers will attempt to bypass their restrictions. That's already happening. As we've reported before, some users have utilised CD drives' Raw mode, which permits pure bit-by-bit copying of the data on a disc. SafeAudio ensures that files copied this way still contain the data corruption, which then prevents them being copied again - back to a CD-R, say.

But there's little the technology can do to scupper the efforts of apps like CloneCD, which is said to copy a track to memory using Raw mode, then convert it to WAV format. That conversion may contain the corrupt data, leading to a file that can be copied by contains sufficient hiss or clicks to render it not worth copying, but it can only be a matter of time before the conversion process incorporates noise elimination algorithms.

There are, after all, some clever coders out there, as the cracking of the DVD copy-protection method, the Content Scrambling System (CSS), proved. Not surprisingly, work leveraging the technology enshrined in SafeAudio to protect DVDs is already underway at TTR. Tokayer says the company has its eye on the music download business too.

This work is designed to take advantage of content industries' desire to block illicit duplication at source. Tokayer, the CEO of a business that takes a 25-30 per cent cut every time Macrovision sells SafeAudio to a record label, admits that the music industry hasn't embraced copy protection as quickly as he would have hoped - it's a conservative business, he says - but he claims there is a real interest in the technology, particularly in Europe, where the labels seem far more bothered by copying than their US counterparts appear. Perhaps that's because CDs are rather more expensive over here, we suggest.

Right now there's a lot of testing going on, and for every Natalie Imbruglia CD there must be many more out there that are slipping by unnoticed, preventing anyone ripping them but not spoiling the listening. Then one day, they'll all be made this way. And, if Tokayer's right, we won't have long to wait. ®

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