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Here`s that article I was telling you about Saturday night.

Hacker-proof CDs secretly placed in stores

More than 1 million discs aim to snuff out casual Internet piracy

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Slipped quietly alongside regular music CDs in record stores, mostly in Europe, are more than one million secretly altered discs - stealth compact discs that represent the recording industry's hopes for a solution to digital music piracy.

The five major record labels aren't disclosing many details on this experiment in copy protection - including which artists' works have been digitally padlocked - and various different technologies are used.

The nature of these discs could explain the labels' reticence. They aim to do something no CDs before them could - provide an impervious barrier against the Internet music free-for-all that Napster and CD burners have made so popular.

Plunk a stealth CD into your stereo and it will play fine, tech experts say.

But try to stick one in your computer and turn it into MP3 files, or try to record its contents onto a blank disc, and you're in for a rude awakening: either it won't work at all, or the result will sound so bad, it's not worth sharing.

This new anti-copying strategy for CDs isn't widespread yet. Among the nearly 400 million CDs shipped in the United States alone in the first half of 2001, they're merely a beta-test.

And if it becomes standard music industry practice, it could provoke a consumer backlash. Music fans have long made personal copies of purchased music in the format of their choice - an activity legally sanctioned as a ''fair use.''

Daniela Mohor, a 26-year-old University of California-Berkeley graduate student who often makes copies of CDs for her friends, thinks the new industry strategy is ridiculous.

''With tapes it was the same thing; you could record them and the industry didn't fall apart,'' she said. ''I understand the industry is trying to protect its profits, but they should find a solution that will benefit both sides.''

The recording industry disagrees. Giving consumers the ability to make perfect digital copies that can be shared on the Internet goes far beyond fair use, it argues.

So after prevailing in cyberspace against Napster, Universal, Warner, EMI, BMG and Sony are exploring technologies that will limit the digital duplication of CDs.

In Europe, more than one million CDs using the copy protection technology of the Israeli company Midbar Tech Ltd. have been released - including 10,000 CDs Sony released in the Czech Republic and Slovakia late last year, the company says.

One of Midbar's three copy-protection options permits tracks from a CD to be copied to a computer for listening but not moved to another PC or shared online.

Another Israeli company, TTR Technologies Inc., has developed a way to add distortion that it claims is undetectable to even the music industry's golden-eared experts. Cassette tape copies would sound just fine, but the distortion would create annoying pops, clicks or hissing in unauthorized digital copies.

TTR founder and chief executive Marc Tokayer says the technology, called SafeAudio, is being tested by each of the top record labels - including one that put 200,000 SafeAudio-protected CDs on store shelves in Europe.

Sami Valkonen, senior vice-president of new media and business development at BMG Music, says his company is not looking to eliminate music from computer desktops - but rather wants to control how it gets there.

''A lot of people enjoy their music digitally these days,'' Valkonen said. ''We would never ever in the U.S. have the situation where people would not have the ability to enjoy their music as digital files.''

The various methods employed to protect content on compact discs do not, however, appear destined to make handling digital music any easier.

One involves disguising the disc's directory of songs so that popular CD-ripping programs can't find the tracks to extract.

SunnComm Inc. of Phoenix used this method to protect 50,000 copies of a Charley Pride CD released in May, and the company president says its technology has withstood the test of would-be hackers.

But it didn't please fans who weighed in on Amazon's Web site where the CD is sold, saying the Pride disc was unplayable on their home stereos.

Kevin Gray, a recording engineer for Hollywood, Calif.-based Future Disc Systems who does work for all five major record labels, opposes inserting ''undetectable'' pops and clicks into the music of his clients, which include Madonna and Cher.

He says adding any distortions to music, no matter how seemingly indiscernible, is a mistake that would be ''very audible'' to clued-in listeners of jazz or classical recordings, for example.

Gray also thinks hackers will find a way around most CD copy protections, a point that even Peter H. Jacobs, SunnComm's CEO, concedes.

SunnComm's solution adds a sufficiently high enough hurdle to frustrate the bulk of casual music fans, said Jacobs.

''We liken ourselves to a padlock on the music,'' he said. ''There will always be people with bolt cutters out there willing to steal things.''

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