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Macrovision preps '99% effective' CD lock-in tech

Supports burning - if the labels allow it

Copy protection software developer Macrovision is set to roll out an updated version of its CDS 300 system that it claims can beat attempts to bypass Windows' auto-run feature but goes some way to balance that by allowing users to burn copies of the CD for personal use.

CDS 300 was launched earlier this year and like older versions blocks access to the CD audio, 'Red Book' portion of a disc when it's played on a PC. Instead, PC users are provided with compressed audio files, currently in Windows Media format (at 192Kbps on the test pressing we saw), on a data portion of the disc. While Macrovision initially provided its own playback software, CDS 300 ties into Windows Media Player.

CDS 300 relies on Windows' auto-run feature to fire up WMP, but as has been well documented elsewhere this can be bypassed by holding down the Shift key, which in turn stops the software installing code that blocks unauthorised access to the audio session. CDS 300 Version 7, which is currently at an alpha testing stage before going beta next month, has sufficent hardware protection - errors in the data, essentially - to block attempts to rip a protected disc's CD audio session.

The upshot, says Macrovision, is that users are forced to used WMP, which invokes the installer. This time round, users are asked if they want to install a "licence" on their PC, but on goes Macrovision's Active Software Protection (ASP) code too, which actively blocks rippers and cloners. To be fair, Macrovision is keen to stress that the on-screen installation information admits that ASP is there, but how many users will take the time to read it, rather than dashing straight for the OK button, we wonder?

The company is also at pains to point out that ASP isn't spyware, particularly having seen so many claims that its previous-generation CDS-200 system installed that kind of code. It didn't - it just installed a player application. It's SunnComm's MediaMax C3 system that installs a driver to block ripping. However, be they right or be they wrong, spyware/malware/virus claims are going to be levelled at Macrovision when CDS Version 7 ships with its ASP installer.

UK marketing chief Simon Mehlman told The Register that ASP is 99 per cent effective against 15 of most common rippers and cloners, but admitted that protection isn't at 100 per cent. Indeed, we note that iTunes isn't on Macrovision's list, probably because it allows users to rip discs through an error-correction mechanism that resembles those found in consumer electronics CD players.

Mehlman said Macrovision is actively researching coding to foil discs ripped on a Mac, and is working on a version of ASP for the Mac OS. If the company is successful in persuading Apple to license its FairPlay DRM technology, it will add iPod support - essentially by adding FairPlay-protected AAC tracks to each protected CD's data session.

Indeed, the company is working on real-time transcoding software that automatically creates compressed, DRM-enabled tracks from the Red Book audio tracks on the disc as they are played or burned. Ultimately the user will be allowed to choose which format they want - and thus whichever DRM scheme is most commonly used with that format.

CDS 300 Version 7's new burning support allows users to create protected copies of discs which can be played back on CE kit but feature all the hard-coded protection to prevent them being used to copy songs on another PC. The discs lack the data session and ASP installer, Mehlman said.

Supporting fair use copying... in territories that allow it

Macrovision portrays the move as an attempt to make legally purchased music as accessible as users have come to expect, particularly in the US where 'fair uses' enshrined in copyright law include the making of copies for personal use. Of course, as Mehlman admits, while Macrovision makes this "controlled burning" available, it's up to CDS 300 customers whether they implement it in the DRM usage rules. What concerns us is that while this will be enabled in the US, in European countries where the above 'fair use' is not provided, copy protection will be used to block even harmless one-off personal-use copying.

And there are other limitations. While Macrovision operates an extensive testing lab full of kit to make a CE fan drool, independently conducted research shows that while CDS 300 discs are playable in all tested car CD players, games consoles and hi-fi systems, that's not the case with DVD players and portable CD players, when 9.1 per cent and 5.6 per cent, respectively, of devices failed.

Macrovision says that in such cases, it's the player's ability to cope with multi-session, Red Book and Yellow Book discs that's at fault, but that's little consolation if you own such a device and are used to playing purchases CDs without any trouble. Macrovision reckons such difficulties will be few and far between by the time CDS 300 Version 7 ships.

"Playability issues will be old news when version seven ships," said Ran Alcalay, Macrovision's sales chief. Though the lack of iPod support may yet come back to bite him.

CDS 300 Version 7 is due for release in September, with certification of production facilities to take place shortly after. Shipping discs protected with the new version depends on Macrovision's record label customers, but Q4 looks set to see the widest selection of protected releases yet. Macrovision is already preparing a CDS 300 update for Q1 2005. ®

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