The introduction of 'copy control'
From the very first time that I heard about the notion of "copy
controlled CDs" (or "copy-protected CDs" as they were known at that
time), it was clear that this was a bad idea. The basis of the
technique is the observation that computer CD-ROM drives are generally
cleverer than simple CD players and are more likely to notice errors
on the disc. By putting intentionally bad or misleading data onto a
disc, it was found that it was possible to confuse most computers but
still have the majority of normal CD players play the disc apparently
Notice that I say 'most' and 'majority' -- with such an approximate
measure as adding intentional errors to confuse a certain proportion
of drives, a 100% clear-cut separation could never be achieved even in
principle. Indeed, from the very start there were reports of playback
problems on car CD players and high-end domestic players, and many of
the supposedly-blocked computer drives could access the audio without
Yet despite this failure to achieve a useful result, the copy-control
companies continued to promote their product as a viable solution to
the record industry's perceived problems. The difficulties caused to
normal CD players and the poor coverage of computer drives were
claimed as merely teething troubles, and the consumer was asked to be
patient whilst they 'perfected' their technique.
It was clear to technically-minded people, though, that this was a
technique that could never be perfected, due to its very nature. Soon
after the first UK-released discs hit the headlines, Philips commented
on the development. They described the products as "silver discs with
music on" rather than genuine CDs, and predicted that the life of
these variant CD-like formats would be no longer than a year.
However, since the patents on the CD format had expired, it seems that
Philips no longer had any direct control over the format, and they
were also unwilling to take any legal action to protect 'CD' as a
trademark. Instead they stated that they felt that this was an issue
that should be decided in the marketplace.
Now, nearly two years on, these variant CD-like formats are still very
much with us, and the marketplace has still not decided. Despite the
severe problems caused by these discs, and the many campaigns against
them that have sprung up all over the world, the constant pressure
from the record companies and the indifference of many non-technical
people has resulted in a stale-mate.
The arms race between drives and copy-control formats
However, over those two years, computer CD-ROM drive development
continued to move forwards. Many newer drives were designed and
tested with copy-controlled discs in mind. Where there were playback
problems with copy-controlled discs, the CD-ROM drive designers fixed
them, working around the intentional corruption added to the disc by
the copy-control companies. It is obvious that a drive that plays
more CDs correctly would be more attractive to the consumer. Not only
that, but many CD-ROM drive mechanisms are also used in car CD
players, DVD players and high-end audio systems where playback of the
latest copy-control discs was a requirement, not merely an
This has left the copy-control designers in something of a quandary.
The ground has moved under their feet, and their formats have become
even less effective than they were to begin with. In a sense,
computer CD-ROM drives have become closer to normal CD players. To
maintain the illusion of effectiveness, the copy-control designers
have had to consider ever more devious technical tricks and to use
ever more aggressive modifications to the CD format in order to
continue to cause problems for computer drives.
We are now starting to see the side-effects of this. More and more
users are reporting problems playing these copy-controlled discs on
normal CD players. Pops and clicks in the sound are commonly
reported, as well as more subtle artifacts. Discs skip at predictable
places in predictable songs; sometimes a CD player will simply stop
dead part-way through a track.
Copy-control formats go too far
Recent reports of problems with some computer drives and DVD players
have been even more severe. The aggressive modifications made to the
disc format have now gone beyond causing mere confusion, to actually
causing damage to some drives. A number of people have reported
noticeable changes in their drive's behaviour immediately after
attempting to play a copy-controlled disc. There have been cases
where normal CDs play erratically or fail to play, and where drives
take much longer than usual to recognise newly inserted CDs. In some
cases the drive has had to be replaced, at significant expense.
Shocking as these individual cases are, they are even more telling
when put into a wider picture: "Copy control" as a technique is
reaching the end of its life. If copy-control format designers have
found it necessary to use techniques on their discs so aggressive that
damage is caused to a proportion of drives, then they have already
lost the battle. It is only a matter of time before the technology
becomes completely unworkable.
Is the end in sight, then?
As Philips predicted, though, the market is the place where the
final decision will be made. How much abuse of their equipment will
consumers put up with before starting to file claims for damages? How
many restrictions on their fair use will they accept before starting
to completely boycott "copy-controlled" products? How degraded can a
disc be made and still be worth paying full price for?
Whilst a few incensed campaigners can have some effect, to
really finish with this problem for good, everyday CD buyers will have
to let the record industry know that they will no longer tolerate
copy-controlled CDs. The record industry must clearly understand that
this is losing them money. Retailers must understand that their
customers require clear product information before future purchases
will be made. Only then do we have a chance, I believe, of finally
seeing the end of these corrupt disc formats.
UK Campaign for Digital Rights CD pages
A report on the damage caused by recent discs
The online retailer campaign
FatChucks, the home of the US campaign and a class action lawsuit
A list of other international campaigns and supporting links