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So I Get This Disc

Protecting an artist's copyrighted work is one thing; using invasive software is another.

Protecting an artist's copyrighted work is one thing; using invasive software is another.

So I get this disc in the mail, by some band called Kasabian. The sticker on the front teems with glowing reviews from the British press (which, in my experience, is usually a sure prelude to disappointment, but anyway...). I slip it into the computer, and immediately hear that infamous chug-chug-chug sound from my CD drive -- it's a copy-protected CD. But wait, suddenly, there's a message box on my screen that tells me files have already been updated and that if I click OK, my machine will reboot.

I click the "No" button -- as in "Hell. No." A series of authentication errors follows, followed by the disc's proprietary player (the one which never offered me an End User License Agreement, which I never had the option of installing, and which I thought I was getting rid of when I clicked "No") attempting to play the disc anyway.

I have plenty of experience with these discs. For a while now, several record labels have sent out copy-protected promos to the press. And you know what? Fair enough, whatever. We music writers occupy the bottom rung of the respect ladder in this whole business of music, and if some bean counter is wetting the bed over the possibility that things are going to be leaked on the Internet by rock critics, fine. Granted, it seems to ignore the fact that most leaks seem to happen before the promos are even pressed (while the band's friends, managers, executives, and assorted hangers-on gleefully swap copies), that U2 seem incapable of vacating hotels without leaving their own master copies behind, or that all it takes is one copy out there in the wild before you have the digital equivalent of rabbits chewing through Australia. An excellent article in Wired, which reads like a spy thriller, documents how the problem is NOT your average record buyer but organized, well-connected levels of insiders and hackers who disseminate music and films with a competitive attitude that would put George Steinbrenner to shame.

But the situation with this Kasabian disc is different. In the past, copy-protected discs at least prompted you before loading their bloated, useless proprietary players. This, on the other hand, is a CD kicking off an executable without asking for my permission, without giving me any info on what changes have been made to my system, or if they can even be reversed. That's a business model with a precedent in the shadowy world of porn sites, virus writers, and other purveyors of malware, of software that turns your screamin' machine into a zombified member of the spam circuit. Doesn't seem to show a lot of respect for the customers on which the entire music industry rests. Oops, did I say customers? I should have translated that into RIAA parlance: "bloodsucking necessary evils who would sooner stomp on Stevie Wonder's shades than actually pay for this music that the major labels so lovingly nurture, releasing it only when it has a role to play in filling the world's emotional vacuums -- never for callous profit, nosiree, why perish the thought!" Unsurprisingly, any emails I've ever sent to the companies behind these technological shell games have all gone unanswered.

At this point, you're probably saying, "Wait a minute, Mr. music-writing man. We're talking about a promo here. You didn't pay for it -- what right do you have to pitch a hissy fit?" Well, first off, the fact that the disc came as a promo doesn't negate the fact that my computer was essentially hijacked so the president of BMG could sleep easy at night. Furthermore, this promo is the same CD that's in stores right now, laying in wait so it can piss off every consumer who buys it. And it's not the only one. The Velvet Revolver disc that shot to the top of the charts? Supposedly locked down like Fort Knox, although the Internet was quickly abuzz with laughably easy ways to circumvent the technology (can't go into any of that here, though, since the Digital Millennium Copyright Act's climate of "it's wrong unless we say otherwise -- and we won't -- and we'll sue you and your little dog too for even looking at us cross-eyed" means that I can probably be retroactively keelhauled for making that warbly, scratchy cassette copy of my Spiderman book/record combo back when I was eight).

A visit to the website for the company behind the copy-protection is certainly warmer and fuzzier than it was even a year ago (when they actually had the gall to say you could only rip a selected number of tracks to your portable device at a time, and about how they're enriching the listening experience), but my experiences with the Kasabian disc directly contradicts two of their primary talking points: that installation takes place on the user's acceptance, and that the install is self-contained, not requiring a reboot. All this just to listen to Velvet Revolver or Kasabian?

Everyone's feelings for or against Velvet Revolver aside, that disc's success probably summoned a Burnsian "Excellent!" from the collective throat of the music industry. "The customers don't care about copy protection," they probably thought to themselves. The impression that it validates a copy-protection scheme that basically pisses off anyone who encounters it is just as bad.

Well, I'll tell you right now that I'm not going to buy a copy-protected CD, and if I'd paid for this Kasabian CD, it'd be going right back to the store. Same for a CD that I love, such as Patty Griffin's Impossible Dream, had it been protected when I pulled it from the racks. If I see that innocuous (dare I say, nearly hidden) little label on the cover while I'm pondering a purchase, that disc's going right back in the bin. Why should I continue to pay more for a product that does less and less?

And believe me, it's not so I can sit in my bedroom, with burned discs piled high and a server farm of 24/7 peer-to-peer connections tearing up bandwidth. It's so that I can do what I'm entitled to with the music that I pay for. You know, so that I can make a backup to prevent the real discs from suffering in the pig-sty conditions of my car's interior. So that I can listen to a CD on my computer at work (an environment that typically frowns on unauthorized software installing itself willy-nilly). So that I can get to work on converting that old computer in my bedroom to a media server for the whole house. So that I can compile stacks of b-side laden singles into manageable, space-saving single-disc comps. So that I can enjoy music in as many ways as possible without worrying about god-knows-what software on my computer, about downloading digital keys, about my rights as a consumer and purchaser of music (yes, although I get free CDs, I also spend a shameful amount of money on music -- call it the music junkie's curse) slowly eroding away. Heck, if I had an iPod, I'd be doubly screwed.

In a way, it's a supreme kind of irony. The record companies deal in a product that's fun, that -- when it's done right -- palpably improves the quality of our lives. Yet they're quickly becoming the enemies of fun, the tight-fisted arbiters of how we apply the soundtrack to our own existence. They sue their customers, they ramrod questionable legislation through Congress, they do everything they can to make the act of listening to music more and more difficult. And it's so freakin' futile. For a better argument of why than I could ever articulate, just read Cory Doctorow's awesome speech on the subject. When you start to look into it, vendors hawking copy protection schemes to the labels appear to be the biggest crop of snake-oil salesmen since the Old West.

This isn't an argument that creators shouldn't benefit from their work -- of course they should. In fact, true artists -- people who make our lives better -- should be richly rewarded. The underlying belief behind this whole rant is that people are basically good, and that if music is good, it will be bought (and yeah, sure, plenty of music that isn't good will be bought, too). I've certainly never bought into the hazy, trippy argument that music and other created works supposedly belong to the cosmos, yearning to be free.

I'll certainly keep buying music, as long as I feel like the record company in question is keeping up its end of the bargain, treating me like an adult, like a citizen with rights. At least with BMG right now, whose press releases say this copy protection scheme will go into effect on all of its CDs, I don't feel that way. That software the CD tried to install? No clue how to uninstall it, if I even can. No clue if it's still sitting on my hard drive or registry. No clue if it's going to interfere with the use of my CD drive in the future, or if it's collecting personal information. In short, it's the kind of software engineering that would get someone fired from most companies, and if our lawmakers were really interested in the cause of digital rights, would carry a hefty penalty or fine. But because of the doom 'n' gloom spectre of digital downloading (which goes unquestioned because, let's face it, few of our aged legislators are informed enough or interested enough to parse through lobbyists' scare tactics or stroking), it's given a free pass. This is, after all, an industry that bandied about the idea of damaging the computers of users connected to P2P networks, and that spouts Alice in Wonderland logic like "it's just to keep the honest users honest", so should we really be surprised?

In short, I just want to listen to my music, in any format I choose, on any device I choose, and in any place I choose. Any technology that makes it more difficult to exercise my rights as a consumer is, at best, an annoyance. As for technology like the one I encountered on the Kasabian disc, which treats those rights with outright scorn? That loses my dollars. Seems to be the only thing these folks understand.

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