Making Piracy Easy. Why The Labels Let CDs Go Unprotected
Cast your mind back, way back. Before streaming services, before digital downloads, before mp3 players – to thirty years ago, when this month, as TechDirt points out, the first commercial CD player was made available through a joint venture by Philips and Sony. Who began development in the 70s on a new music format that was to usurp the likes of of cassette and vinyl.
In October 1982, that new optical format – the compact disc – came to fruition, aside from its obvious size advantages, both physically and storage-wise, it also stored music in a digital, rather than analogue format; along with an interesting conspiracy that it was introduced specifically to kill off the vinyl format.
The rest of course, became history, and while the current state of affairs makes the survival of the CD format look pretty grim indeed, the labels – bemoaning the continued existence of widespread music piracy and the availability of copyrighted content – may only have themselves to blame for the current state of the industry by not introducing security measures to the Compact Disc to begin with.
While it became a new way for the labels to make money, relying on the convenience and size of CD to market a new format, and all the economical thrills that go with it; their remarkable lack of foresight actually spelt out repercussions that have become major parts of the music landscape.
As the large majority of people make the shift to digital consumption, with the latest figures showing a significant, and increasing drop in physical sales, while also suggesting that digital album sales are set to break records, there’s an irony to be found in that the CD helped introduced the rise of file sharing in the 1990s, once mp3 technology had been developed and the Internet became available to nearly every man, woman, and child.
As TechDirt points, online file-sharing services, such as the boom of Napster, would not have nearly been so successful if there hadn’t been a convenient resource of files to share to begin with – namely, CDs and all that music – just waiting to be ripped, uploaded, and shared.
The question becomes then, why didn’t the labels, or Philips and Sony – the format’s developers, introduce security measures to stop easily reading and ripping CDs? Why did they not worry about people copying files and sharing them? In a way that was far more straightforward and user-friendly than the cassette was.
The answer is very straightforward: because at the time of the CD’s launch, there wasn’t anything to copy a CD to.
More specifically, the rise of music piracy is tantamount to the development of technology. In 1983, a year after the arrival of CD and its commercial availability, IBM launched the first PC with an internal hard disc with a measly storage capacity of 10 Mbytes, a mere fraction of CD’s ability of holding around 700 Mbytes, meaning that storing just one album would take several computers and a whole lot of compression.
The cost of such technology too, obviously outstripped the necessity of storing several songs on several computers. Meaning the convenience of having a copy of the CD was easily justified on the cost of simply buying another copy than it was to ‘rip’ one.
But where the obvious flaw in design comes, is that with the rising accessibility and lower of costs in hard disc storage and space that took place (and at a rapid rate), all the while the CD format remained relatively unchanged. It wasn’t until Napster had well and truly established itself as a mainstream service, and was perhaps even looking down the barrel of its Metallica-aided oblivion, that record labels even bothered to introduce Copy Protected CDs in the late 90s and early 00s.
Even then, it was too little too late, with the collective resources of the internet able to find loopholes in a cheaply introduced security measure, which even then wasn’t introduced as a blanket policy.
Once again, the rest is history, ripping and storing music has become easier and cheaper than ever, and it took Apple’s iTunes to help the record companies to see the light about the flexibility – and steaming piles of cash – to be made from embracing the digital revolution rather than attempting to, to quote Crowded House, catch the deluge in a paper cup.
The CD then, and its lack of protection, stands as a reminder of the music industry’s inability to think ahead, to predict the trends and flow in technology and reacting rather than revolutionising.
Thirty years ago, Philips and Sony weren’t concerned about the idea that people would want to freely share the content of the Compact Disc they were developing, just as today it seems as inconvenient to some to make the trip to a physical store and buy music than it is to open Spotify and stream it with a few ads.
The real question is what technologies are being developed right now that are going to drastically change the way we consume music and media, and how will they be perceived and planned for? For all we know, the next symbolic CD could be right around the corner – just waiting to be plundered – whether that’s for commercial reasons, or illegal ones remains to be seen.
Could Microsoft’s new Xbox Music service be the new king of the music service heap? Can Neil Young’s streaming player be the iPod killer it hopes to be? As the music pirates shift to embrace the possibilities of new infrastructures like cloud-based media streaming, it demonstrates that the core issue is one of convenience.
Ironic, given that it was probably more convenient for Philips and Sony to not worry about developing copy protection into their design for the CD format, which became a major inconvenience to those same companies when that same convenience became exploited for the individual’s needs, and not that of the labels’ bottom line.