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C-Dilla AudioLok - The next CD Protection for Audio CD's
IF YOU LIKE LISTENING to music CDs while working on your computer, New Scientist has some bad news: a company has found a way of preventing CDs being played on a computer's CD-ROM drive. The idea is not to increase productivity in the office, but to stop pirates copying CDs or sending CD-sourced music across the Internet. It is not yet clear, however, whether record companies will risk consumers' wrath by releasing discs they can't play on their PCs.

Software companies, including Micro- soft and IBM-owned Lotus, already use C-Dilla's SafeDisc system to stop people copying CD-ROM data discs. SafeDisc puts the program material in an encrypted "wrapper" which can only be unwrapped when a digital signature code pressed into the disc matches an authorisation code entered into the PC. While a ROM drive can read the authorisation code, a CD recorder cannot copy it, so copies of the CD-ROM will not run.

A CD-ROM disc stores data at three levels, and although a CD-ROM drive reads all three, it only passes the top level into a PC for copying. SafeDisc stores the key code signature at a lower level, so it can be read from the original CD-ROM disc but not copied onto a blank. Although a CD recorder can copy a protected disc, the copy will not run on a PC even when the correct authorisation code is entered.

The music industry has been dreaming of just such an anticopy system since it was claimed more than 30 years ago that the Beatles' vinyl album Sergeant Pepper could not be copied. In fact, as with the many systems that followed, the recording was as easy to copy as it was to play.

But now C-Dilla's founder Peter Newman, who invented SafeDisc, has found an answer for the CD generation. His Audio-Lok system takes advantage of the fact that the standard for the music CD format was set before the CD-ROM standard.

CD-ROM drives have a more powerful error-correction system than music CD players, which is activated by extra code on the CD-ROM discs. Newman's system adds false error codes to a music disc. An ordinary CD player doesn't notice the false codes, but a CD-ROM drive picks them up and ejects the disc as unplayable. This makes it impossible to copy the music onto a blank disc or "rip" it onto a computer so it can be compressed and sent over the Net.

A prototype AudioLok disc lent to New Scientist duly played on a CD music player but refused to play or copy on a PC. Newman says he is confident that his system will also stop consumer music CD recorders making a copy, because these devices are already designed not to copy CD-ROMs. He expects AudioLok to be ready for launch in a year.

TV and video companies already use a copy-protection system, developed by the American company Macrovision, to stop people pirating their programs and movies. Macrovision has bought C-Dilla for around $18 million so it can offer similar protection to the music industry.

But the breakthrough may have come at the wrong time. The music industry's Secure Digital Music Initiative group has just agreed with the electronics manufacturers to allow owners of CDs to make copies onto a PC, as there seemed to be no foolproof way to stop copying altogether.

So will music companies use AudioLok? "The recording industry welcomes people listening to CDs on computers," says Paul Jessop, director of technology at the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, the music industry's world trade body. But he adds: "The ability to make discs that cannot be copied on computers may be of considerable interest to some record companies."

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