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On September 23 we mentioned that Arista released an album by singer Anthony Hamilton in a new “secure digital” format. Here now is an analysis of the technique by computer scientist John Halderman of Princeton:

    Abstract – MediaMax CD3 is a new copy-prevention technique from SunnComm Technologies that is designed to prevent unauthorized copying of audio CDs using personal computers. SunnComm claims its product facilitates “a verifiable and commendable level of security,” but in tests on a newly-released album, I find that the protections may have no effect on a large fraction of deployed PCs, and that most users who would be affected can bypass the system entirely by holding the shift key every time they insert the CD. I explain that MediaMax interferes with audio copying by installing a device driver the first time software from the CD is executed, but I show that this provides only minimal protection because the driver can easily be disabled. I also examine the digital rights management system used to control access to a set of encrypted, compressed audio files distributed on the CD. Although restrictions on these files are more relaxed than in prior copy protected discs, they still prohibit many uses permitted by the law. I conclude that MediaMax and similar copy-prevention systems are irreparably flawed but predict that record companies will find success with more customer-friendly alternatives for reducing infringement.

    ….Conclusions – Record companies will evaluate anti-copy technologies by weighing their ability to reduce infringement against their drawbacks. For customers who prize fair use rights–like the ability to time and space shift recordings and to create compilations of the music they own–the limitations SunnComm’s system places on these rights undermine the value of purchased music. This loss in value for music customers may fail to yield any benefit for the industry because of the weakness of anti-copy technologies. CD copy-prevention schemes that depends solely on software, as SunnComm’s does, will be trivial to disable, and alternative strategies that modify the CD data format will invariably cause public outcry over incompatibility with legitimate playback devices.

    Even if copy-resistant CDs make it harder for users to illicitly copy CDs they own, the technology will not necessarily reduce the overall incidence of copyright violation. Peter Biddle et al. of Microsoft have much to say about this topic in their paper, “The Darknet and the Future of Content Distribution” [13]. “Increased security (e.g. stronger DRM systems) may act as a disincentive to legal commerce,” they suggest, by driving would-be customers to underground sources, such as peer-to-peer file trading networks, that provide media in unrestricted forms. No existing security technology can prevent copying in every case, so protected recordings will inevitably become available from these so-called “darknet” sources. Biddle concludes that for content producers to effectively compete against illicit distribution, they must work to provide “convenience and low cost rather than additional security.”

    If this theory is correct, the industry has the best chance of accomplishing its goals by giving customers more for their money and making it easier for them to buy music. I believe anti-copy CD technologies will prove unfruitful, and will therefore eventually be abandoned by record companies. There firms may take a cue from the movie industry and increase the value of CDs by bundling interesting bonus features rather than restrictive copy-control software. It seems likely that they will also capitalize on the popularity of digital distribution by aggressively supporting online services like Apple’s successful iTunes Music Store. These strategies likely will pave the way to reduced infringement by enticing more listeners to pay for recordings.

The report is fascinating, and even fairly understandable by the likes of me.

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About Eric Olsen

  • http://www.whiterose.org/michael/blog/ Michael Croft

    Fascinating article. The author thanks Ed Felton, who is an academic with something of a rocky history with audio copy protection. I believe Felton had a paper on the subject that got him into DMCA trouble.

    I wrote the author of this paper a few questions. I’ll respond to this if he gets back to me…

    1. What is the quality of the compressed, encrypted WMA files? Would either an average listener or an audiophile be able to hear the difference?
    2. Is it reasonable to object to a closed, encrypted standard for archival purposes?
    3. At some point, copyright expires. Are these license restrictions still applicable?
    4. What were your experiences testing this on a Macintosh?
    5. One of the complaints I have seen is that some car stereos use computer CD mechanisms and some protection schemes causes failures on these units. Did you observe any problems with this CD?
    6. If you do not have WMP installed, is it possible to play the CD on a computer, either Mac or PC?
    7. Does the driver-level patch on OS X interfere with applications like Wiretap? http://www.ambrosiasw.com/utilities/freebies/
    8. One reason this model works is the degradation in quality suffered by even first generation D/A A/D conversions. The rationale is that consumers will not accept the quality of a recording that has been captured from a playback source. However, the cost of digital audio is coming down and some computers (such as the Apple G5s) are starting to include it as a feature. Will the ability to capture digital content in a lossless or low-loss digital format work to defeat the protections offered by these technologies?
  • Eric Olsen

    I look very much forward to hearing what you find out Michael – thanks.

  • http://www.whiterose.org/michael/blog/ Michael Croft

    Alex Halderman replied as follows. FWIW, everything I’ve heard about the so-called “Princeton Mafia” of computer security researchers say they’re top-notch academics and generally get it right.

    1. 1: What is the quality of the compressed, encrypted WMA files? Would either an average listener or an audiophile be able to hear the difference?
      I haven’t listened to the files (I can’t without accepting the EULA) and I’m not sure what the bitrate is, but because they’re compressed they must be worse than raw CD audio. At the least I’m sure audiophiles would find fault.
    2. 2: Is it reasonable to object to a closed, encrypted standard for archival purposes?
      That’s probably a reasonable objection. Normal audio CDs are likely to outlive the licensing infrastructure SunnComm uses.
    3. 3: At some point, copyright expires. Are these license restrictions still applicable?
      At least in theory they expire, barring repeated term extensions by congress. I don’t think the technology makes any provisions for this.
    4. 4: What were your experiences testing this on a Macintosh?
      I only tested on one flat panel iMac, and I couldn’t get MediaMax to protect the CD at all on that system. I’m not sure if this is an isolated anomaly, so I don’t want to say anything more specific about Macs for the time being.
    5. 5: One of the complaints I have seen is that some car stereos use computer CD mechanisms and some protection schemes causes failures on these units. Did you observe any problems with this CD?
      The way MediaMax works, the CD shouldn’t cause any problems on non-Windows, non-Mac players, including car stereos. They can’t run the MediaMax software, so they see the disc as a perfectly normal CD.
    6. 6: If you do not have WMP installed, is it possible to play the CD on a computer, either Mac or PC?
      Not using SunnComm’s software. You’d need to bypass the protections in that case.
    7. 7: Does the driver-level patch on OS X interfere with applications like Wiretap?
      I don’t know.
    8. 8: One reason this model works is the degradation in quality suffered by even first generation D/A A/D conversions. The rationale is that consumers will not accept the quality of a recording that has been captured from a playback source. However, the cost of digital audio is coming down and some computers (such as the Apple G5s) are starting to include it as a feature. Will the ability to capture digital content in a lossless or low-loss digital format work to defeat the protections offered by these technologies?
      Quality is lost in two places — D/A A/D conversions and decompression/recompression. I’m not sure if SunnComm’s playback system allows digital audio out, but even if it does, the sound source will be compressed WMA files rather than raw CD audio. Recompressing this into unencrypted audio files will decrease the sound quality further.
  • Eric Olsen

    Excellent Michael, thanks, and thanks to Alex Halderman for the reply.

    I should point out that the media has latched onto the “defeated by using the shift key” angle.

    That is pretty funny.

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