Starting From Scratch

There is only one industry in the world that takes as its point of departure the supposition that all people are thieves - the record industry. That is the only explanation for the fact that this industry decided to scratch every CD it manufactures, as a means against theft.

There is only one industry in the world that takes as its point of departure the supposition that all people are thieves - the record industry. That is the only explanation for the fact that this industry decided to scratch every CD it manufactures, as a means against theft. No other industry deliberately flaws its products because it thinks everyone is out to steal them. Now the record industry will have to defend its deed in court.

The music industry is highly lucrative. Sales of CDs in 2001 were worth about $33.7 billion. Almost every home in the Western world, including Israel, has a small library of CDs. Nevertheless, 2001 saw a decline of 5 percent in sales volume as compared with the previous year. Senior industry executives said that the reason for the fall in sales was digital pirates, who abandoned the equivalent of sailboats in favor of sophisticated burning.

Since the CD became the standard in the music and software industries, hundreds of millions of computers around the world have been equipped with multipurpose CD drives: they can read software CDs and also play music CDs. The record companies are trying to bring about a situation in which it will be impossible for the CD drive in computers to read the information on music CDs, because what it doesn't read it doesn't understand, and what it doesn't understand it doesn't translate into a file and what does not exist as a file does not reach the Internet - and in the eyes of the record industry, the Internet is the root of all evil: through it, consumers of music exchange files, burn them onto empty CDs and thereby cause losses to the record industry.

The record companies maintain that consumers are doing simple arithmetic and reaching the conclusion that there is no reason to buy a music CD for NIS 70 when you can download all its components (songs) from the Internet for free and then burn them onto an empty CD that costs about NIS 3. The result is fewer sales and declining profits for the record companies. Their frustration is understandable, but the solution they came up with for their distress appears disproportionate, if not totally baseless.

The companies decided to adopt a technology that creates tiny flaws on music CDs - in other words, scratches. The CD player in the living room is built to overcome these tiny scratches and play the CD smoothly. However, the CD drive in computers, which from the outset was not designed to play music CDs, is unable to deal with these flaws and its reaction to them is blunt and unequivocal: it spews out the CD as though to say, "What in the world is this? Insert a proper CD!"

Like any new technology, though, the "scratch technology," too, is far from perfect. Many clients have complained that the CDs they bought do not work in any drive, and if they do play, their quality is substandard. Users of Macintosh computers say the technology is defective and that the CD gets stuck in the drive in a way that makes it impossible to release it. The worst problem, though, is the axiomatic belief of the record companies that they have the ability to veto the uses that are made of their products.

The Mitsubishi company, for example, knows that car thieves like to steal their cars, and that this has caused a drop in its sales. It also knows that the thieves use dirt roads to evade the police. Will Mitsubishi produce a car whose tires will explode every time it is driven on a dirt road? Publishers know that there are thieves who photocopy their books and distribute them illegally. Will they consider developing a technology that will cause photocopied pages to come out blurred? What will happen to students who only want to photocopy a few pages? But the car owner and the student are not worried; they know that a sane industry does not try to interfere with the "fair use" that is made of its products.

The music industry, in contrast, doesn't care that many consumers like to listen to music while they are working on their computer. It is of no interest to them that Moishele burned a copy he bought of the CD put out by Hagashash Hahiver - the legendary Israeli comedy trio - so that he can insert it into his car CD player and have something to laugh about while he is stuck in traffic jams. The music industry is ignoring the public opinion surveys, most of which show that after someone downloads an "illegal" copy of a song, he will prefer to purchase the full and legal CD. The record companies want to maintain absolute control in the way the world listens to the Beatles, and to make that happen they have already released more than 15 million CDs that can be played only on "authorized instruments."

A few days ago this issue came before the Supreme Court of California. A group of lawyers filed a class-action suit in the name of music fans against the five largest record companies in the world, claiming that the companies are deliberately manufacturing flawed CDs and are thereby infringing the right of consumers to listen to the CDs they bought on whichever instrument they choose. The record companies argue in response that they have the right to protect their property in any way they see fit. In a few months, the court will have to decide which side it's on: the music industry or the music fan.