Ben Freedland did two things that his fellow college students have been doing routinely for the past several years: First, he bought a new music CD by campus fave the Dave Matthews Band, then he tried to upload it onto his Apple iPod.
But something was wrong. When Freedland, 20, first inserted the "Stand Up" disc into his laptop in preparation for transferring it to his iPod, "it took over my computer," he said.
The screen went blank, then a copyright agreement popped up. The music wasn't going anywhere. Freedland could play the CD on his laptop, but he couldn't transfer it, and he couldn't copy it to share the mellow grooves with friends or family.
Freedland deemed the CD "worthless."
The Duke University student had had his first run-in with a technology that record companies are using to limit the number of times users can burn, or make extra copies of, CDs. The new content-protected disc, which is not yet compatible with the iPod, is the recording industry's latest strategy to curb the illegal spread of music. This time, the crackdown is on the CD purchased at your local music shop -- the last bastion consumers held in freely sharing legally bought music.
It's one thing for record companies to file suit against people who share music files illegally on the Internet, or to pursue criminal charges against those who make pirated copies of CDs and sell them on street corners. But this is different. Generations have grown up with the notion that if you buy an album at the store, the songs are yours to show off to your friends.
In the 1970s and '80s, people made mix tapes without thinking twice. The tapes were an expression of personality. "A good compilation tape, like breaking up, is hard to do," Nick Hornby wrote in "High Fidelity," a novel in which mix tapes served as the very definition of identity and the currency of relationships.
With the death of the cassette tape, that same mentality transferred to the mix CD. It became a birthday gift, a wedding compilation, a way to say "sorry" or "I love you." In college dorms, students started exchanging CD albums so that a hardcore Nirvana fan could try a little Garth Brooks without having to pay for the whole CD.
But the technology got too good. Copies of CDs sound just as clear as the originals -- unlike cassette tapes, which always had some level of hiss. And with the rise of the Internet and online file-sharing, suddenly it became possible to share with several thousand "friends" at a time.
Such behavior is being blamed by the industry for a dramatic drop in sales of CDs and other forms of recorded music. Over the past five years, shipments of music to retailers have dropped by 21 percent, according to the
Recording Industry Association of America.
"There is no question that piracy -- in its various, ugly forms -- is the primary reason for that decline," said Mitch Bainwol, chairman and chief executive officer of the association, in a written statement. "In the face of such devastating and ongoing harm, it is appropriate that record companies find ways to facilitate the continued investment in new art."
So in a move that risks alienating a dwindling customer base, the major record labels are tightening up restrictions on CDs.
A growing number of newly released CDs are equipped with software that limits users from burning copies more than three times. On CDs released by record company Sony BMG Music Entertainment, individual songs can be used in compilations only three times.
Rival EMI Music will test CDs with a similar technology this summer, releasing three to six titles with a three-time burn limit on each album. (No, you can't make copies of burned CDs -- the content protection won't allow it.) In addition, consumers can copy an individual song up to seven times. Both EMI Music and Sony BMG use technology that prevents the songs from working on peer-to-peer networks such as Kazaa, which contain songs in MP3 format.
This juncture in technology is a tricky proposition for music lovers, who often say they support artists' rights to combat piracy. Yet, when it comes to individual use, they assert ownership of their CDs with an almost parental pride.
Steve Coleman, 43, said he prefers to buy his music at local CD stores rather than download songs online. Sporting a black T-shirt, a Harley-Davidson cap and long blond hair in a ponytail, he looks like the epitome of the old-school music junkie. One recent afternoon he flipped through the racks at Melody Record Shop on Connecticut Avenue NW, searching for New Order's latest release.
In his high school days, Coleman made mix tapes of his favorite rock and dance tunes for his friends, and other kids would invite him to parties to play his Led Zeppelin and Donna Summer records. Today he's a deejay, and he gives burned CD mixes to potential clients who want to know his musical tastes.
"I paid for it," Coleman said. "I should be able to do what I want with it, as long as I'm not breaking the law by giving it away to all my friends en masse, which is ridiculous."
But CD loyalists are divided on that issue. Greg Shadley, who works in the campus ministry office at Georgetown University, takes two buses and a train to get to his job every day. His iPod and his jumbo headphones accompany him every step of the way, he said.
Shadley, 49, even listens to his playlists at work. He prefers classical music, but he also rocks out to bands like the Grateful Dead and the Doors. He hates downloading music off the Internet unless it's absolutely necessary.
The content-protection technology would not keep him from buying an album, Shadley said, because he doesn't like to share music out of respect for the artists, who stand to lose royalties every time someone copies a tune instead of paying for it. Shadley used to work at a Tower Records downtown and hated watching kids buy the latest pop CD to lend to all their friends.
A newer generation of music lover views things somewhat differently. Around the George Washington University campus, students said they understand the record industry's reasons for combating music piracy. But they also acknowledged that it wouldn't stop them from sharing CDs with their friends or downloading free music.
Emily Mannie teaches a spinning class and likes to sample music online before deciding if it's worthy enough for her music mixes. She says she respects artists' rights and understands why the recording industry is setting boundaries. But she still downloads illegally because, well, it's free. The average college student pocketbook isn't very full of money.
"It's like speeding," said Mannie, a 28-year-old graduate student. "I know I shouldn't speed, but I have to get there."
If she comes across an artist she finds appealing, she's willing to invest in a CD. For example, when the rock band the Killers first got big, she wanted to hear more than just the hit single "Mr. Brightside" before buying the album. If she hadn't listened to the songs online, she doesn't know if she would have been willing to go to a record store to buy the CD.
Getting a taste of the music online and buying the album seem to go hand in hand. Consumers who spend the most money on music usually buy a mix of digital music and CDs, according to the NPD Group, a market research firm.
"Everyone likes to think this is a zero-sum game, and that's not necessarily going to be the case," said Russ Crupnick, president of NPD's music and movies division.
For their part, record companies say content protection won't hurt sales. The technology is meant to target music pirates who burn more than a reasonable amount of purchased CDs.
The CDs that have content protection say so in a label on the disc. If consumers try to get around it, they should know that their actions are illegal, said Thomas Hesse, president of global digital business for Sony BMG.
"If you go over a speed bump, you know you went over a speed bump," Hesse said. "They know that when they do so, it might be dangerous and it is illegal."
Those bumps don't seem to slow down some music lovers who just won't quit until they have the song they want. According to Yankee Group, the crackdown on peer-to-peer networks isn't effectively cutting into music file sharing.
In some ways the iPod, with its vast storehouse of music files, has become the mix tape of the digital age. It is a soundtrack to everyday life. Whether it's riding on the rail or walking to work in the summer heat, people are constantly moving to a rhythm.
The recording industry knows it must keep up with the beat. The new CDs are not compatible with the iPod. Both Sony and EMI are in talks with Apple to try to solve the problem.
As technological advances empower consumers, the free flow of music continues to spill over the boundaries set by the recording industry. Last week, Freedland, the Duke University student, downloaded free tracks from the new Dave Matthews Band CD from a peer-to-peer network. They are now on his iPod, ready for listening.
"It seemed like an entitlement," Freedland said. "I purchased the music, and I should be able to do what I want with it. Now I can." Source