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Macrovision and SunnComm court Apple for a seachange in CDs

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The two big US copy protection specialists, Macrovision and SunnComm are both touting the idea that they need to become Apple iPod compliant and they might need the help of the big record labels to twist Apple’s arm into helping them.

Macrovision CEO Bill Krepnick when interviewed by Faultline two weeks ago hinted heavily at this, and now CNET this week has talked to both companies, each saying they are actively working on including iPod compatibility in their next generation of CD copy protection systems.

Macrovision made it clear to us that its next generation technology, due early next year, would also transfer its protection to any burned CDs so that those CDs could not be used as a source to copy onto file sharing networks. At present CD copy protection exists only on the original CD.

It is clear that both companies were deliberately leaking to the press in order to get their message across to Apple that they need to work together. Apple clearly isn’t so sure and has not yet responded to the overtures from the two companies.

Once Apple realizes that it may have a new revenue stream, based on a royalty payment from the cutting of every CD in the world, it may become more interested in co-operating with the CD protection specialists. The CNET piece cited SunnComm saying that 80 per cent of its complaints are now asking about why consumers can’t copy their CDs to their iPods, a subject of considerable frustration.

But the problems won’t go away if the record labels switch allegiance to Apple AAC format from the Microsoft WMA formats that they currently use to offer PC copies of music on protected PCs.

At the moment an unprotected audio-formated CD, when copied onto a PC, will end up in MPEG4’s audio format, which is the Appleinspired AAC.

Hand over or hands off?

But most copy protected CDs have a digital audio file that cannot be copied and a separate “data session,” that can be copied to a PC which is usually in the form of a Microsoft Windows Media audio file protected under Windows Media DRM licensed by SunnComm and Macrovision from Microsoft.

Replacing that setup with AAC files, not as a second session, but working from the original version, which is only copy-able under control of a DRM system such as Fairplay or something like it, would be great for iPod owners, and people that store their music in iTunes. But it creates a whole host of legacy problems and problems for players that accept WMA files only.

Instead of calls from iPod owners, the calls would just come from a different set of people. So as WMA players emerge and as Sony (which ships 25 million portable music players each year) delivers hard disk players supporting its own ATRAC file format, some people will stay unhappy if only iPod files and DRM are supported.

In the end what is required is a piece of software that will support handoff from the CD to any of Microsoft, Apple’s or Sony’s DRM but not to a system with no DRM. The copy protection companies seem to be edging towards just supporting Apple right now.

There is no way all three formats should be supported on the CD, making it bulky and more expensive, and it would become troublesome buying the version that suited your portable players if three different types were made. Instead a converter on each disk (or bundled into iTunes and Connect) that converted file formats in the copy process could easily be set up (MP3 converters abound). Then the handoff only to the three DRM formats (Window Media, Fairplay and MagicGate) might also be achieved, something that again we know that Macrovision is working on.

Copyright © 2004, Faultline

Faultline is published by Rethink Research, a London-based publishing and consulting firm. This weekly newsletter is an assessment of the impact of events that have happened each week in the world of digital media. Faultline is where media meets technology. Subscription details here.

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