Sony’s CD protection method foiled with a felt tip pen

By Ron Harris, The Associated Press
Friday May 31, 2002

Data track on European music discs prevents use on PCs, but simple defeat discovered by users 


SAN FRANCISCO – Amid Internet message board reports that Sony’s copy-protection scheme for CDs released in Europe easily can be defeated with a felt tip pen, the corporation is warning consumers against using the new hacking tactic. 

Sony Digital Audio Disc Corporation, Sony Corp.’s CD manufacturing unit, said in a statement that users trying to thwart the copy-protection scheme risk ruining their CDs and their playback devices. 

“Sony DADC is aware that consumers are trying to circumvent copy-control technology with different means, which may lead to different and unpredictable results in different environments,” Sony DADC said on May 22. “Consumers should be aware that attempting to circumvent copy control by writing or attaching anything to the disc can result in permanent damage to the disc, and possible damage to the playback device.” 

Word surfaced on a German Web site, www.chip.de, that some music fans and technology tinkerers successfully had faked out Sony’s copy protection by marking the music CDs with a felt tip pen or attaching small pieces of paper to the disc. 

Sony’s recent European CD releases from artists such as Celine Dion, Shakira and Jennifer Lopez contain Sony DADC’s copy-protection method, marketed as key2audio. The system normally prevents users from ripping CD tracks to MP3 files by placing a small bit of computer data on the disc during the process of making the glass master CD. 

Then, instead of recognizing individual audio tracks, a computer reads the data track and ignores the audio tracks, preventing PC playback of the music. Only standalone devices such as home stereos and portable CD players can recognize and play the audio tracks on the discs. 

By obscuring the data track with a felt pen mark or a piece of opaque adhesive paper, protected discs like Dion’s have been made playable and copyable on home computers. 

Sony claims 22 million CDs containing key2audio technology have been sold. 

The copy-protection scheme on Dion’s latest CD, “A New Day Has Come,” purchased in Berlin, easily was defeated by using the felt tip marker method. An ink line drawn across the copy-protection data portion of the CD allowed the disc to be copied digitally. 

But the original CD then no longer worked in a standard CD player. 

Sony Music Entertainment labels have yet to unleash copy-protected CDs in the U.S. market, content so far to practice on Europeans until they perfect the system. The problem in much of Europe is not MP3 trading via file-sharing networks such as Morpheus and Gnutella, but CD duplication to blank discs. 

Sony plans to sate U.S. consumer appetites for digital-format music by including condensed copy-protected song files alongside the regular song files. That will allow users to play the CDs on their own computer, but not to copy music onto the hard drive or share it over the Internet. 

“When copy-protected CDs are introduced in the United States, they will contain second sessions technology so that computer playback will be possible,” a Sony spokeswoman said. 

CD players in home computers normally use a laser to read “pits” containing data on the disc. But copy-protection schemes interrupt this normal performance by sending instructions to the computer not to play the discs. 

The soundtrack to the movie “The Fast and the Furious,” released by Universal, contains a warning label that each track is protected against unauthorized copying. Once the CD was placed in a PC CD tray, a small software audio player encoded onto the music discs popped up on the monitor and began to play the first track. 

But there was no problem ripping the tracks to unprotected MP3 files using the popular MusicMatch software, despite the warning label. 

Universal uses technology from Tel Aviv, Israel-based Midbar called Cactus Data Shield, or CDS. Midbar described the defeat of its CD protection as rare, though it was done using both MusicMatch software and Microsoft Windows Media player, two of the more common tools for ripping and encoding music into compressed digital formats. 

“As a security company, Midbar does not comment on specific titles. It should be noted however, that CDS is a renewable and regularly updated technology. In the extremely few cases where someone does successfully rip one track or more, it is because of a specific drive and software combination,” said Noam Zur, Midbar’s vice president of sales and marketing. “There is no universal hack to circumvent CDS technology.”