Sony Music's first move into mass market CD copy protection has come with the European release of singer Celine Dion's new album, A New Day Has Come. The copy protection system obstructs PC copying and MP3 ripping but makes innocent playback on a PC a confusing hit-and-miss affair. Copying using audio equipment is not blocked.
In 2001, BMG had to replace copies of CDs by Five and Natalie Imbruglia because they had no label to warn consumers that the Cactus system used to obstruct copying made the music play in very lo-fi on a PC. Sony is using the different key2audio system, developed by the company's DADC factory in Austria.
Celine's European fans need to stay alert. Although Sony has left off the usual CD logo, the disk looks like any other CD, and shops are selling them alongside conventional CDs. A small notice on the sleeve warns "will not play on a PC/Mac". Shops could therefore quite reasonably refuse to give refunds to anyone who buys to listen while they work or play on a computer, but finds they can't.
Computer-using fans in the US are luckier; Sony has released the same album there without copy protection and it plays reliably on a PC.
A spokesman for Sony Music in Europe told that their use of copy protection is increasing and is clearly labelled: "It allows for copying, but not for play on computers where internet distribution of copyrighted material is causing untold damage to artists and to music companies."
"In Germany, where there are the most copy-protected disks, consumer 'response' is tiny, 0.014 per cent," he says.
The European disk plays normally on most home CD and DVD players - unless the manufacturer has used a ROM drive inside. When used in a PC CD-ROM or DVD-ROM drive, the "CD" behaves completely unpredictably.
Sometimes the PC needs several attempts before recognising the disk; sometimes music player software then plays it normally, but sometimes it doesn't. This frustrates ripping the music to MP3, internet re-distribution and CD burning.
But some copy software, like Clone CD, can still make a copy onto blank CD, as long as an 80-minute disk is used to record the 73 minutes of music. Sometimes the copy then plays, but sometimes not.
A Philips home CD recorder makes a playable copy onto blank CD; so does a Sony consumer Mini Disc recorder. Copies can also be made with an analogue connection from a consumer CD player to a PC sound card.