Major labels Sony BMG and EMI are releasing more and more new CDs that block fans from dragging their tunes to iPods.
Now, in the most bizarre turn yet in the record industry's piracy struggles, stars Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters and Switchfoot -- and even Sony BMG, when the label gets complaints -- are telling fans how they can beat the system.
Sony BMG Music Entertainment now regularly releases its new U.S. titles on CDs protected with digital rights management (DRM) that dictates which file formats consumers can use to digitally copy the music. MP3 is not one of those formats. The DRM also limits how many copies of the files consumers can make.
EMI Music is testing a similar initiative for wide-scale use by 2006.
But these decisions are not sitting well with some of the artists whose CDs have been secured. A number of leading acts are using their Web sites to instruct fans on how to work around the technology. (Others, including Jermaine Dupri, have expressed support for anti-copying efforts.)
For now, the copy-protected discs work only with software and devices compatible with Microsoft Windows Media technology. Apple -- the dominant player in digital music -- has resisted appeals from the labels to license its FairPlay DRM for use on the copy-protected discs.
The DRM initiatives are generating complaints from fans, many of whom own iPods. The message boards of artist fan sites and online retailers are filled with complaints from angry consumers who did not realize they were buying a copy-protected title until they tried to create music files on their home computers.
One solution artists offer to iPod users is to rip the CD into a Windows Media file, burn the tracks onto a blank CD (without copy protection) and then rip that CD back into iTunes.
Columbia Records act Switchfoot, whose latest album, "Nothing Is Sound," is copy-protected -- and debuted at No. 3 on The Billboard 200 last week -- recently took copy-protection defiance one step further. Band guitarist Tim Foreman posted on a Sony Music-hosted fan site a link to the software program CDEX, which disables the technology. The post has since been removed.
"We were horrified when we first heard about the new copy-protection policy," Foreman wrote in the September 14 post. "It is heartbreaking to see our blood, sweat and tears over the past two years blurred by the confusion and frustration surrounding new technology."
To add some minor injury to insult, EMI Christian Music Group had to recall copies of "Nothing Is Sound" that were shipped to Christian retailers. Under an agreement with Sony BMG, the EMI imprint handles manufacturing and distribution of Switchfoot to the Christian market. The EMI discs have incorrect DRM settings that do not allow consumers to rip or burn secure tracks.
Switchfoot is not the only band upset by copy protection.
"I'm completely frustrated," says Jason Brown, president of Philadelphonic, a management company that represents Tristan Prettyman. The artist's Virgin Records debut, "Twentythree," is among the albums in the EMI copy-protection trial. "Copy control as it stands right now is in its 1.0 phase. It was rushed through and into a system that wasn't prepared for it."
Sony BMG says it is not trying to prevent consumers from getting music onto iPods. Fans who complain to Sony BMG about iPod incompatibility are directed to a Web site (http://cp.sonybmg.com/xcp) that provides information on how to work around the technology.
The company, which has sold more than 13 million copy-protected discs to date, is urging people who buy copy-protected titles to write to Apple and demand that the company license its FairPlay DRM for use with secure CDs.
EMI is not quite so helpful. A source says the company will not instruct consumers on how to work around copy-protected discs.
Sony BMG, EMI and Apple officials all declined comment. However, both majors have said that increased CD burning has forced their hands on copy protection.
But artists and consumers are bristling at the notion of being caught in the middle of this test of wills. Some managers express doubt about the Sony BMG and EMI strategy in dealing with Apple.
"Anything that smacks of corporatism, people don't like," says Jamie Kitman, president of the Hornblow Group USA, manager for Capitol Records act OK Go, which was considered for, but ultimately left out of the EMI trial. "There's no doubt this has the whiff of punitive activity."
What is more, artist managers are upset that the security is so easily beaten -- in the case of Sony BMG, with the company's assistance -- that it makes a mockery of content protection.
Warner Music Group and Universal Music Group are taking a wait-and-see approach to copy protection. Neither has announced plans for secured U.S. commercial releases.
"The bad thing is that you are almost promoting what you are trying to protect against," Brown says. "You are upsetting the fan that went out and purchased the record."