Music companies have introduced a range of "copy protection" technologies as part of a drive to stop unauthorised CD copying and the sharing of digital music online. The industry blames these practices for damaging music sales.
But the tactic has angered many music fans for a number of reasons. Copy protection means music cannot be transferred to digital music players, or backed up, and some protected discs do not play at all in certain CD players.
Now, the magazine c't (Computertechnik) and RapidSolution Software have developed a program called unCDcopy to enable computer users to get around any copying restrictions.
Sven Hansen, an editor at c't, says the program was produced because music fans are being treated unfairly. "It's a strange thing to punish the people who bought the CD's," he told New Scientist, rather than those who copy music illegally.
Hansen says it is unclear whether the program could fall foul of the European copyright regulations introduced in 2001. The EU Copyright Directive makes it illegal to sell any device that circumvents copy protection technology. A similar law, called the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), exists in the US.
All CDs can be copied by recording the analogue output from a regular CD player, but reconfiguring the recorded data into a useable digital file can be time-consuming.
UnCDcopy performs this task automatically. Once the analogue output has been captured, the program then checks with a database hosted by c't to determine where the digital file should be split up, in order to make separate tracks for each song.
The quality of this recording will be significantly less than that of a digital copy. Jim Peters, a representative of the UK's Campaign for Digital Rights, agrees that the technique is low-tech, but says it should be effective.
"This is like CD to tape copying, only brought into the 21st century," Peters told New Scientist. "It will let you defeat any copy prevention system, but in an obvious low-tech way."
A common copy protection trick is to modify a CD so that the original tracks refuse to play in a computer's disc drive. This prevents users from making replica CDs or compressed digital copies of the music that can be posted online.
But this is not the only weapon the industry is using against music pirates. Through the Recording Industry Association of America, music companies have taken legal action against individual users suspected of downloading copyrighted music from online file-sharing networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus.
The latest statistics on global music sales, released on Thursday by the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI), indicate they fell by 7.3 percent during 2003.
"Global music sales had another difficult year in 2003, under the combined effects of digital and physical piracy and competition from other entertainment products," said IFPI chairman Jay Berman in a statement.
A spokesman for the British Phonographic Industry defends the use of copy protection: "There are very good reasons why record companies have installed it on CDs. The fall in record sales seems to be directly correlated with the rise on music piracy."
However, a recent US study suggests that the opposite may in fact be true, and that the most copied music also became the best-selling music.