Universal Music is in talks with its best-selling rap artist Eminem to deploy copy protection technology on all upcoming CD releases of "The Eminem Show," marking the biggest move yet to protect its top acts from music piracy, a label official told Reuters Wednesday.
Discussions are under way between Universal, a division of French media conglomerate Vivendi Universal, Eminem and his Universal-owned label Interscope Records to make the anticipated top-selling release copy proof, thwarting the industry's biggest concern -- piracy.
Universal and Eminem would need to strike an agreement on whether or not to release the security-enhanced CDs in the next two weeks to meet manufacturing deadlines for the June 3 release date outside the United States, a Universal spokesman said.
If approved, it would be the most significant new music release to come embedded with copy-proof technology, a new innovation adopted by the major labels to thwart the rampant rise of consumer piracy, which they claim is hurting CD sales.
In a related move, Universal is also closely monitoring the circulation of Eminem's first single "Without Me," the company said. The number of promotional copies, ordinarily delivered to radio stations and the media, has been limited to ensure it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
Labels have been particularly sensitive about distribution of pre-release copies lately. Last month, tracks from British rock band Oasis's new CD "Heathen Chemistry" were leaked on to the Internet.
Eminem's 2000 release "The Marshall Mathers LP" sold 17 million copies, and the controversial American rap artist's new album is tipped to be one of 2002's top-sellers. Copy-protection technologies, however, have stirred controversy since their introduction into the market late last year.
Consumers have objected to the new technology saying it only allows them to play the CDs on home stereos -- the discs do not play on PCs, most portable devices, and in some cases, in car stereo systems.
Until now, the technology has been confined to releases in select geographic markets. It's never been deployed for a global release or for an artist with the immense following of Eminem, setting the stage for the label's biggest PR battle yet in its fight against music piracy and rampant CD burning.
"Clearly, we will have a better sense of how the market feels about copy-protection when a release of Eminem's stature, should we decide to do it, comes with copy-protection on it," said Adam White, Universal Music International spokesman in London.
"Mass-copying has gotten to such a level that we had better take a stand to protect the artists," he added.
The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, an industry trade body, said global music sales fell by five percent in 2001, hurt particularly hard by the rise of CD burning and Internet song-sharing sites.
"RIP, MIX, BURN"
Universal, along with Sony Music, has been at the forefront of copy protection tactics.
Over Christmas, Universal released two million copy-protected CDs in Germany, but kept the technology confined to non-blockbuster albums.
Sony Music Europe has taken the most aggressive anti-piracy stance in the business. Since last fall, the label has shipped 11 million copy-protected CDs in Europe, with the largest percentage going to Germany, the world's fourth largest national music market.
New Sony releases for Celine Dion, Shakira and the re-mixed releases of Destiny's Child and Jennifer Lopez in Germany and other parts of Europe now carry Sony's copy-protection technology, known as "Key2audio."
The objective of anti-piracy measures is to target the so-called "rip, mix, burn" culture of young music fans. The technology prevents the music from being "ripped," or transformed into an MP3 file, stored on a computer, and then "burned" (copied) on to a blank CD or DVD.
Industry reports reveal that computer users swap billions of tracks for free over peer-to-peer online services such as Morpheus Music City and Kazaa, while the trade in bootleg music CDs has grown too.
Universal uses technology developed by Israeli firm Midbar Tech Ltd. The labels have acknowledged that the copy-proof technologies currently in use need improvement, adding that future versions should permit consumers more playback freedoms.