The Word Gets Out on Copy-protected CDs

By Richard Menta- 11/13/01

Recently two professors at Rutgers University, Barbara Bickart and Robert Schindler, completed a study on the Web's effectiveness as a mechanism for generating consumer interest in a product or service. What they found was that the "word-of-mouth" shared on consumer forums and personal web sites were quite effective and had greater influence on the Net community than corporate Web sites.

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This is important as we jump to the subject of this article, Copy-protected CDs and the appearance of Web sites that are exposing them.

Last month we wrote about these hampered discs in our article "Devaluing the Product - Copyright-protected CDs". These CDs are designed not to work on computer CD players in an effort to shut down the ripping and trading of MP3 tracks.

Many people, especially on the job, use their computer to stand in for their stereo system these days. To take the ability to play a CD on a computer away is an act that violates consumer expectations of the product. A CD that will not function in a PC will only frustrate and anger consumers and many will simply choose to avoid them.

But they can't avoid these CDs without first becoming aware of which albums are encumbered with the technology. Enter the Web sites of both Fat Chuck and the Campaign of Digital Rights, among the first sites to post running lists of computer disabled CDs. The words coming from these two sites are this, don't buy the CDs on their lists. If you do and it doesn't work on your PC, return it as defective.

That's potent stuff if Bickart and Schindler are correct and these sites generate a significant audience.

If Bickart's and Schindler's research is accurate, the voice of these sites are more compelling to the average Joe than that of, say, Universal Music Group who have already committed to adding this technology to all their wares in the coming years. Fat Chuck posts the actual responses of listeners who have reported "corrupted" CDs and, according to the researchers, consumer comments are the most compelling words to other consumers.

CD's on Fat Chuck's site include the music of Tori Amos, Michael Jackson, N'Sync, Creed and Primus. The goal is to end this CD-crippling before it becomes standard business, but these are big name acts with big weekly sales. Will anyone notice if a few people don't buy their records?

They might. As we wrote in our article "6 CDs a year" the average person buys only a half a dozen records a year. That means we are already being extremely selective in what music we convert into a sale. There is much more music we would like to possess, but the cost of a single record forces us to limit our purchases. You buy one CD at the expense of another CD, which can never come home with you.

To say consumers will live with a crippled CD rather than go without their favorite artists ignores the fact that we already go without many of our favorites. We will still buy our 6 CDs a year. We just will replace the ones enabled with copy-protection with those without and there is plenty of music to choose from. As for the music on copy-protected CDs, many will turn to the trusty Napster clones to get them (believe me these tracks will still find their way online) and they will get them for free. Yes, copy-protected CDs may actually have the reverse effect on aware consumers and encourage file trading.

Fat Chuck and the Campaign of Digital Rights are not only sites to blow the whistle on PC-crippled CDs. Take a look at Amazon's Spotlight Reviews (reviews by consumers) and you find music fans are outing these CDs there too. The top four posted reviews for Charley Pride's A Tribute to Jim Reeves were all given a lowly one star specifically because of the copy-protection on them. Here is a sample from one consumer in the reviews:

I would love to hear Charley's latest album, but unfortunately his record company decided to put some type of non-standard copy protection on the CD to stop 'pirates'. Because of this crazy decision, this CD won't work in your computer or any CD system that uses a computer style CD drive, including many of the audiophile CDR systems. For me, this means I can't listen to this CD at work, or at home because it won't work on those systems...

Sorry Charley but I'm not going to replace my CD player just to listen to your new album! I will wait until they fix this problem. The MOST annoying thing is that I read they released it overseas without this 'feature' so only American fans have to suffer this. Of course, this won't stop CD pirates for five seconds - it just inconveniences American consumers.

Amazon is the number one site for consumers looking to buy music online. One can only wonder how many have read this review and chose to pass on the purchase. Charley Pride may not sell as much music as N'Sync, but he has an audience and has probably lost sales.

The ultimate losers here? Artists whose music is encrypted. Record sales were never higher than at Napster's zenith, suggesting the service did more to promote music than discourage its sale. Crippled CDs can only hurt sales. If artists lose sales, they lose income and chances are not all of them demanded that their tracks be secured in the first place.There is also some question on the accuracy of Fat Chuck's posts. This will only double the effect on artists if people avoid even that music which is only suspect, but not really encumbered

Ironically, Charley Pride may have actually picked up a sales boost because the press his CD generated as the first US encrypted album (we think) made him more visible to those outside of country's focused audience, including those who don't use their PCs as a stereo. That won't help the others on Fat Chuck's list, especially those who target younger buyers who are more technology savvy.

In that case putting a label on a CD that says "No copy-protection" would be the most effective sales tool for these artists.


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Devaluing the Product - Copyright-protected CDs


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