Accustomed to playing CDs in your Mac? Beware. A number of music labels have released intentionally corrupt audio discs in Europe and the U.S. that look like industry standard CDs and even play in some CD players (see Fat Chuck's Corrupt CDs site and the Campaign for Digital Rights site for lists). But if you ignore or fail to notice the "Will not play on PC/Mac" warning label on the outside of the package - if it's even present - you might be in for a rude surprise.
These audio discs use a copy prevention (a more accurate term than "copy protection") scheme that makes them incompatible with the Red Book format that defines the Compact Disc standard. The desired result is that the discs should play in normal audio CD players, but not in computer CD drives. (See "Copyright: Who Should Benefit?" in TidBITS-618 for additional coverage of this topic.)
The disc failing to play is annoying in itself, but the rude surprise is that you may not be able to eject the disc. Apple recently posted a Knowledge Base article on this topic, offering a number of workarounds, especially for newer Macs that lack a manual eject mechanism. Worse, according to reports sent to the Campaign for Digital Rights, these audio discs may cause some Macs to crash and some to start up to a gray screen if the disc is left in the drive at startup.
If the disc still fails to eject after you've tried all of Apple's suggestions, you'll need to take your Mac to an authorized repair center and have them extract the disc manually. In the initial posting of the Knowledge Base article, Apple included a comment that this repair would not be covered by your warranty or AppleCare, which, although extreme, was still a reasonable position. After all, the blame for this happening lies first with the music labels for making and distributing corrupt audio discs, and second with the user for inserting it in the CD drive, and only minimally with Apple for eliminating the manual eject hole from some Macs. Still, in a situation where Apple was taking the moral high ground, the warranty comment caused many people to focus on Apple rather than on the perpetrators of these discs, so a modification to the Knowledge Base article removed the comment. (What that means for warranty and AppleCare coverage is thus unknown.) You can read the original in a Mac Observer article from last week.
The music labels should be liable for any charges incurred by users who need to take their Macs into a dealer for extraction. There's a big difference between "Will not play on PC/Mac" and "Do not insert into PC/Mac at risk of rendering computer inoperable." Plus, record stores should post large warnings near such discs in the store or face potential liability themselves. Sure, users shouldn't put these corrupt disks in their computers, but it's certainly possible for someone to miss the warning, if there is one (who reads the outside of what looks like a standard compact disc carefully?). Plus, some people, even knowing that the disc won't play, may be curious about what does happen if the disc is inserted - talk about curiosity requiring the cat take a trip to the vet.
Cartels without a Clue -- I don't know what bugs me the most about this situation. High up on the list is the way the music cartel is treating customers: as thieves and pirates. Computer users aren't the only ones affected either, since many normal CD players, DVD players, and car CD players also reportedly have trouble with these corrupt audio discs. Some companies believe that the customer is always right; these music companies seem to believe that the customer is always criminal.
But can that bit of stupidity compete with the uninformed arrogance that copy prevention technologies, particularly when applied in only part of the world, even begin to dent usage of the peer-to-peer file sharing networks? A cursory search showed that numerous tracks from the Spider-Man movie soundtrack, one of the albums listed as corrupt on the Campaign for Digital Rights site, are readily available for downloading. It takes only a single person to make a copy of an audio disc - even if it requires an extra analog-to-digital step - before the music appears on the file sharing networks. Worse, if certain audio discs are known to be corrupt, I can see many computer users downloading copies of the songs rather than purchasing the disc, just to avoid the hassle.
Then there's the fact that covering the outer track of these corrupt discs with a black marker or electrical tape can result in the discs being playable in a computer's CD drive. In other words, a steady hand with a Sharpie is all that's necessary to defeat the copy prevention technology? Ooo, that's secure.
Of these, I think the prize goes to treating customers as criminals. Believing that copy prevention technologies can't or won't be broken, and thinking that they could make any difference are indeed arrogant and uninformed, but treating your customers as criminals not only encourages them to act that way, it also poisons the well for future sales, even for CDs that have no copy prevention technologies in place. I know that my level of disgust with the music cartel has distinctly cooled my enthusiasm for buying music except directly from independent musicians, and I've certainly heard similar sentiments from others.
DMCA/EUCD Criminals -- I used the term "criminals" above quite intentionally because according to the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA - check out the "YMCA" parodies below for a giggle), circumventing copyright protection technology for any reason is a criminal offense. There have been many well-documented cases involving the DMCA - for an overview, read the Electronic Frontier Foundation's recent report detailing the consequences of the DMCA after three years. The European Union Copyright Directive (EUCD) has many of the same kinds of provisions and is generating similar kinds of protest.
One spot of light comes from U.S. Representative Rick Boucher (D-Virginia), who plans to introduce legislation that would modify the DMCA to make it legal to break copy prevention technologies to exercise fair use rights. Boucher isn't attempting to legalize all copying - it would still be a violation to copy something with the intent of violating the work's copyright. There's no telling if his legislation stands any chance against the deep pockets of the music and movie cartels, but to judge from the list of Boucher's Internet and technology initiatives on his Web site, he has a clue and may be the best hope for action in Congress.
Creative Commons Launches -- Another bright spot is the recent launch of the Creative Commons project, which I mentioned in "A Couple of Cool Concepts" back in TidBITS-617. Creative Commons is a non-profit organization founded on the notion that some writers, artists, musicians, and movie makers would rather share their creations than exercise the full restrictions of copyright law, which, thanks to the DMCA, are Draconian.
What I like about this approach is that it emphasizes the aspect of creation that desires an audience - when I write, I do so because, more than anything else, I want people to read my words. Yes, I need to earn a living from my writing, but I've managed to do that in a variety of ways while keeping TidBITS free for over 12 years. What I've done with TidBITS isn't rocket science, and although it's also not a model that everyone should, or even could, emulate, it shows that the concept of sharing one's creative works and earning a living are not mutually exclusive, as so many of the powerful industry lobbying groups would have you believe. We'll see how successful Creative Commons becomes, but I have high hopes for them and plan to use their services myself in the future.
Perhaps the best aspect of Creative Commons, though, is that it's applying some creativity to the business end of the copyright debate. We'd all be better off if as much creativity was put into business models as into artistic endeavors and creating copy prevention technologies.