Copy protection refers to a means of preventing material – generally digital material – from being copied by the end user. The original incarnations were used way back in the 1970s to protect floppy discs containing copyrighted software. But back in the early days of copy protection, a lot of systems relied on the honesty of end users, and even then they were generally easy to circumvent.
Music had only ever really suffered from the claim that “home taping is killing music,” which nobody ever really believed anyway, and by the late 1990s everyone was doing “tapes for the car” or even copying CDs from their friends onto MiniDisc or CD-R. And of course then came Napster and the world of music downloading.
So somewhat inevitably, at the start of the 21st century, copy protection finally came to the world of music. The big record companies now printed large messages saying “thank you for buying this CD but please don’t copy it or anything” on the cases, and in the meantime they invested huge amounts of money in developing systems to prevent users from copying them.
Which is where they shot themselves in the foot. If at that stage they had collaborated to invest in developing proper mechanisms to legally download music, they could have completely changed the shape of the years that followed. Illegal downloading could have been significantly reduced before it became mainstream. Physical formats might have stayed popular for a little longer. Record companies definitely wouldn’t have collapsed, and record shops may have even managed to find a second breath of life if they had been involved in the dissemination of music.
Instead, they chose to invest in copy protection, and it would be another three years before iTunes, one of the most popular of the legal download sites, would come along to start turning the tide.
Not only was developing copy protection a pretty stupid measure (surely any idiot could have predicted that the CD didn’t have much of a future once the transition to online music had begun), but it was also a counter-productive one. What the record companies came up with was a disc which could no longer be played properly on a large number of normal CD players, but also, significantly, could still easily be copied.
Early variations of solutions involved using a marker pen to draw around the edge of the CD to circumvent the protection, or you could just use an Apple Mac, as it seemed to make little difference to them. Or you could download special software to grab the signal. Or, if all else failed, you could just duplicate the audio signal.
Sony and BMG’s copy protection systems were such a disaster that they resulted in product recalls and lawsuits from 2005, and were finally ditched for good in 2007. Which is pretty much the definition of “too little, too late”. Most amusingly, the system actually violated copyright itself. It would be nice to think as a consumer that you’re being treated with a little respect by the vendor.
Obviously ultimately copy protection was never going to stop the most determined audio grabber, but in my experience, and I suspect that of many, it didn’t even provide a deterrent. It was just a nuisance, putting the latest album from Zero 7 or Moby into a normal CD player, only to see the message “Disc Error” (you could often get around this by making a CD-R copy of the album, which was ironic to say the least).
So what was the point? Well, the music industry of 2000 clearly thought that the CD was going to live on regardless of what happened in the world of downloading. They were seen as two different audiences. The reason for which is not obvious to me – did they really think that everyone would think “oh, hold on, this mp3 is lower fidelity than the CD release, so I’d better buy that too”?
Of course, fifteen years on, we’re able to see the whole picture with the benefit of hindsight, and we can see just how stupid the record companies were to ever invest in copy protection. It was with that total lack of foresight that the music industry committed suicide.